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American Independence, War of (1775–1783)


AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, WAR OF (17751783). The War of American Independence began on 19 April 1775 with firefights at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. It ended on 28 June 1783, when a British force ceased operations against the French, who were aiding rebels in southern India. Barring Vietnam, it was the longest war in the history of the United States to the twenty-first century. It involved most European powers as either belligerents or watchful observers. In one way or another it touched every part of what had been British America, including not only the thirteen east coast colonies but also Canada and Native American country as well as the West Indies and the open Atlantic. The war destroyed one empire and created another.

The war was not synonymous with the American Revolution. That larger civil, cultural, social, and economic transformation sprawled over a quarter century between the first colonial challenges to British authority in 1764 and the implementation of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Unlike the later Southern war to preserve slavery and destroy the United States, it does not have a military narrative strong enough to carry the whole story of the American Republic's creation. But the war was central to the Revolution's process and its outcome.

Two myths about the war need dismissal. One, long favored in patriotic annals, is that virtuous citizen-soldiers put down their plows, threw off tyranny, and returned to daily life. The other is that British power was so overwhelming as to render American victory almost inexplicable. Americans did believe they fought in a good cause, but there were many dissenters. The fiercest fighting pitted white colonials, black people, and Natives in a melee that engulfed them all. For patriot whites the war did end in triumph. Loyalist whites emigrated at the war's end in larger percentages than those in which people left revolutionary France. The war shook slavery severely, and thousands of former slaves also departed with the British. Though most Indians had no reason to count themselves among the war's losers, it ended in disaster for virtually all of them.


With hindsight the North American story has three phases. In the first, for roughly a year following Lexington, Britain attempted a police action to contain and put down a local rebellion. The goal was to combine a show of force with relative lenience. This phase is associated primarily with General Thomas Gage (17211787), who in 1775 was both civil governor of Massachusetts and commander in chief in North America. But the hope of reconciliation carried over to his successors, the brothers Admiral Lord Richard Howe (17261799) and General Sir William Howe (17291814), whose appointments made them peace commissioners as well as joint commanders.

From the spring of 1776 until the autumn of 1778 both Britons and Americans understood the confrontation in terms of conventional European warfare. Nonetheless there was a difference. The Howes sought control of American cities. They abandoned Boston (17 March 1776) when Americans placed artillery on Dorchester Heights and made the town indefensible. The British regrouped at Halifax, Nova Scotia, marshaled their largest seaborne force prior to the twentieth century, and seized New York City (15 September 1776). It remained in British hands until 1783. Their forces included regiments of hired German "Hessians," named for the principality of Hesse that supplied them.

The American commander in chief George Washington (17321799) realized after losing New York that his primary task was to keep his army in existence while it acquired strength, skill, and weapons. Washington bolstered American morale with winter victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey (26 December 1776 and 3 January 1777). The major outcome of this phase was the defeat and capture at Saratoga (17 October 1777), in upstate New York, of a British army led by General John Burgoyne (17221792). Burgoyne's goal had been to seize the Champlain-Hudson corridor between Montreal and New York City. The American commander at Saratoga, Horatio Gates (c. 17281806), was a former British officer who once had served with Burgoyne. Burgoyne had not expected serious help from Sir William Howe, who was moving on Philadelphia, which he captured from Washington's forces (26 September 1777). Howe's successor, Sir Henry Clinton (17381795), evacuated the nominal American capital the following spring to concentrate his forces in New York.

Partisan war marked the third phase. In 1777 civil war broke out in what now is western New York, pitting regular soldiers, settlers turned guerrilla fighters, and Indians against one another on both sides. The same configuration appeared after the British invaded Georgia in 1779 and South Carolina in 1780. These conflicts saw the disintegration of both white and Native communities, with the added element in the South of slaves who sought their freedom where they could find it. The Americans tried to put down the Iroquois country conflict with a conventional invasion in 1779, and the British used the same strategy in the South. Neither effort was successful. The war in northern Indian country spread into modern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Though it ended with Iroquois fragmentation and defeat, Shawnees and others farther west remained powerful enough to resist the United States for a decade.


The mainland war ended with a set-piece siege at Yorktown, Virginia (918 October 1781). Yorktown became possible for many reasons. Initially the British invasion of South Carolina in 1780 seemed successful. At Charles Town (Charleston after 1783) Clinton's invaders captured the American army of Benjamin Lincoln (17331810), more than five thousand troops. Redressing Saratoga, Clinton's army defeated Americans led by Gates at Camden, South Carolina (16 August 1780), bringing the entire province under British control. Clinton returned to New York, leaving Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis (17381805) to complete southern pacification on the assumption that most Americans would welcome the invaders.

Cornwallis moved into North Carolina, where a new American army under Nathanael Greene (17421786) inflicted major damage on him at Guilford Court House (15 March 1781). Resistance popped up everywhere as soon as Cornwallis's redcoats pushed on, despite ferocious action against the militiamen by British and Loyalist cavalry under Banastre Tarleton (17541833). Nonetheless Cornwallis moved his army north again to subdue Virginia. He had no better luck there and finally took up position at Yorktown (1 August 1781) to await seaborne supplies and possible reinforcements.

The relief never came. Instead, a combined Franco-American force besieged and captured Cornwallis's entire force. Yorktown proved the major strategic consequence of the fact that France had entered the war in 1778. Clandestine aid had begun arriving even prior to American independence via the government-sponsored trading firm Hortalez et Cie of Bordeaux. French matériel and monetary assistance were of great importance to the American army's ability to remain in the field, and after 1778 the French could provide soldiers and a fleet. Cooperation was not always good. French supply officers had as much difficulty as their American and British counterparts in obtaining foodstuffs from reluctant farmers and profit-seeking merchants.

Washington's main goal from the alliance was to recapture New York City, which he could not do without French naval support. Nonetheless, when he learned that Cornwallis was in the Chesapeake and that a French fleet was en route there from the Caribbean, he and the French commander, Jean de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (17251807), agreed to move south. It was a gamble, because there was no guarantee that the French admiral, François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse, comte de Grasse (17221788), could gain control of the Chesapeake entrance. Grasse did stave off a British fleet outside the Virginia capes (10 September 1781), taking control of the great Chesapeake Bay and making it possible to move both a French siege train and the combined American and French forces into position around Cornwallis. Grasse returned to the West Indies, and Washington returned to the Hudson Valley, where he continued to plan New York's recapture. But the loss of Cornwallis's entire army at Yorktown broke Britain's political will to continue the North American struggle. The ministry of Frederick North (Lord North, 17321792), in power since 1770, fell, and British offensive operations in North America ended.


The larger war did not end. As early as 1779 British policymakers began to think that the Americans could not be defeated. Thanks to the involvement of France and of Spain as a French ally, Britain's naval resources were stretched thin. In 1779 there was real danger that a Franco-Spanish fleet and army would invade Britain. Every Caribbean island, including Jamaica, was vulnerable, and there were not enough ships to protect them all. That risk finally ended at the Battle of the Saints, fought between the Leeward Islands of Dominica and Îles des Saintes (12 April 1782), when a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney (17181792) captured Grasse himself. But Britain did lose Minorca to Spain and came close to losing Gibraltar.

Despite its enormous might, Britain faced great disadvantages during the American war. In diplomatic terms it was virtually isolated. France became an American ally, Spain was an ally of France, and the Dutch were so pro-American that Britain declared war against the Dutch at the end of 1780. Led by Catherine the Great (ruled 17621796), empress of Russia, who entertained visions of mediating the conflict, other European powers formed the League of Armed Neutrality, which stretched from Russia to Sicily. That development favored the American cause indirectly by securing Baltic naval stores for France and Spain. Britain, long dependent on American sources for the wood, tar, and hemp its fleets needed, had the advantage only that more of its ships were copper-bottomed to resist fouling and therefore faster and more maneuverable at sea. Although North's ministry was politically secure until the loss of Yorktown, it could not raise enough troops in Britain and Ireland both to fight overseas and to maintain home defense. That was the main reason for hiring the German Hessian regiments.

Sheer distance proved another problem for British policymakers and generals. The thirty thousand troops who arrived in New York harbor with the Howe brothers in July 1776 were an enormous force. But every soldier, whether British or German, was virtually irreplaceable. Despite short enlistments and great suffering in the Continental army, it seemed there always were more Americans. New England's original pickup army inflicted heavy casualties before losing Bunker Hill (actually Breed's Hill) overlooking Boston (17 June 1775). Britain could not afford more such Pyrrhic victories. That may be why the Howe brothers did not pursue their advantage after they trapped Washington's half-trained and demoralized Continentals on Long Island (27 August 1776), allowing them to fall back first to Manhattan, then into Westchester County north of New York City, and finally to New Jersey. Washington's capture of Hessian regiments at Trenton and Princeton and the capitulation of Burgoyne's entire seven-thousand-man army at Saratoga in October 1777 presented the British with losses that were difficult to fill. The British never succeeded in supplying themselves from the American countryside, despite constant foraging. After 1776 New York City was virtually impregnable against recapture, but virtually every tree and fence on Manhattan Island had to be chopped for firewood, and the city needed constant reprovisioning from across the ocean. The same became true in the other two secure British enclaves, Charles Town and Savannah, Georgia.

British strategy assumed that "good Americans" would rally to "government" given any chance. Many did, particularly on Long Island and Staten Island, New York, which were securely loyal, and in New Jersey and South Carolina, where the Revolution virtually collapsed after redcoats arrived. There was strong Loyalism plus neutral "disaffection" in New York's Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, on Maryland's Eastern Shore (between Chesapeake Bay and the sea), and in much of the country where advancing white settlement met Indian resistance. But except for Long Island and Staten Island, Britain never secured its hold over potentially Loyalist country.

Enough Virginia slaves rallied to the offer of freedom in November 1775 made by the royal governor, John Murray, Lord Dunmore (17321809), to form his "Aetheopian Regiment." (Most of them died in the smallpox epidemic that broke out that year and swept across most of the continent by 1782.) Clinton repeated that offer when British strategy turned south, with significant results. But Britain never tried to rouse all the slaves, and north of the Carolinas black men could find freedom by serving in the Continental ranks. North and south alike, many Indians recognized Britain as their best hope. However, two of the six Iroquois nations (as well as others) chose the American side, and Americans forced the Cherokee to abandon the British cause in 1779. Finally, though Britain sent the best generals it could find to America, none was of the first rank. Both William Howe and Burgoyne joined the parliamentary opposition after they returned from their American service.

The initial American expectation was that virtuous militiamen could defeat professionals and mercenaries. Early events seemed to support that belief. These included the heavy losses the British expeditionary force suffered on the way back to Boston from Lexington and Concord; the massive redcoat casualties and light American losses at Bunker Hill; the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain (10 May 1775), which yielded the artillery that eventually was emplaced overlooking Boston; and the nearly successful invasion of Canada in the winter of 17751776. In fact militiamen and part-time soldiers were important throughout the war. Without them the Americans could not have outnumbered and trapped the British at Saratoga, and they did important duty controlling Loyalists, guarding coastlines, and serving as skirmishers. Irregulars did most of the frontier fighting on both sides.

But when Washington assumed command at Boston (3 July 1775), his goal was to create a dependable, disciplined regular army. He could draw on an American tradition of one-year service, which was more than ad hoc militia duty but less than European-style long-term enlistment. The officer corps that assembled around him began imagining itself as composed of "gentlemen" with privileges common soldiers could not have. The fact that some American officers, including Generals Richard Montgomery (17361775), Charles Lee (17311782), and Gates, had borne commissions in the class-riven British army added to that sense. So did the advent of aristocratic and pseudo-aristocratic European volunteers, including the Marquis de Lafayette (17571834), who became an instant American major general; Thomas Conway (1735?1800); Count Kazimierz Pulaski (Casimir Pulaski, 17471779); and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin von Steuben (17301794), who became the Continental army's drillmaster. Continental officers came to command troops who were serving "for the duration." These mostly were young, single men of the sort that might have enlisted for the long-term service and tough discipline of a European army in the absence of any better choice.


For the British this was the last war of the ancien régime. But for Americans the war was revolutionary. Virtually every American community saw conflict and disruption. In addition to shaking slavery and drastically weakening Indian power, it changed women's understanding of themselves as they learned to deal with businesses their men previously had monopolized. "Your farm" became "our farm" and eventually "my farm." Though the preservation of the Continental army was central to the outcome, militiamen fighting a "people's war" often made the difference at critical moments. The war created both a national elite and a national economy, and these were the basis for the movement that led to the U.S. Constitution in 17871788. For the British the war's course led from excessive optimism to humiliation, but otherwise it left them unchanged. For the Americans the war transformed almost everything.

See also British Colonies: North America ; England ; Enlightenment ; Liberty ; Military ; Revolutions, Age of.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. The war from Native American points of view.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride. Oxford and New York, 1994. Thoughtful account of the outbreak of war.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1972. Biographies of joint British commanders.

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 17631789. Bloomington, Ind., 1977. A thorough account from the American viewpoint.

Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Arms and Independence: The Military Character of the American Revolution. Charlottesville, Va., 1984. Essays by the foremost scholars of the subject.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 17751783. Introduction by John Shy. Lincoln, Nebr., 1992. Originally published in 1964. Thorough account from the viewpoint of British policymakers.

Martin, James Kirby, and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 17631789. Arlington Heights, Ill., 1982. A brief and well-crafted synthesis.

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 17751783. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979. Exploration of the war in cultural terms.

Schechter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. New York, 2002. Narrative of events bearing on New York City.

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. Oxford and New York, 1976. Essays in the "new military history."

Edward Countryman

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War of Independence


The War of Independence, also known as the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War, was fought from 1775 to 1783 between Great Britain and the 13 British colonies in North America. The 1783 treaty of paris, which ended the war, gave the 13 colonies political independence and led to the formation of the United States of America.

The war had its roots in the growing economic power of the colonies and the limited political freedom granted by Great Britain to the colonists for managing their affairs. Acts of British Parliament in the 1760s that imposed taxes and import duties on the colonies increased these tensions.

The British victory in the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years' War (1756–63), removed France as a power in North America, yet the costs of the war were staggering for Great Britain. Faced with a large national debt, Parliament passed the Molasses Act and the Sugar Act in 1764, which imposed a duty on molasses and sugar imported by the colonies. The stamp act of 1765 taxed papers such as legal documents, newspapers, and almanacs. The Quartering Act indirectly taxed the colonists by requiring them to house, feed, and supply British troops.

American colonists reacted angrily to these tax measures, believing that it was unfair of Great Britain to subject them to taxation when the colonies had no representation in Parliament. British leaders repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but the following year Parliament passed the townshend act, which imposed a series of new taxes on goods arriving at American ports. The new taxes were designed to pay the salaries of royal governors and other colonial appointees of Britain's King George III. The Townshend Act also restructured the customs service in the colonies, placing its headquarters in Boston.

The Townshend Act evoked more protests from the colonists. Groups such as the Sons of Liberty and the Daughters of Liberty organized protests against customs officials and boycotts of taxed goods. Merchants agreed not to sell imported goods.

British customs agents in Boston extorted money and seized American ships with little justification, leading to a riot in March 1770. The British troops, popularly known as redcoats because of their red uniforms, fired on the crowd, killing five people. The episode became known as the boston massacre.

Great Britain again reacted to economic pressure by removing most of the Townshend Act taxes. A notable exception was the tax on tea, which remained a symbol of Parliament's authority to tax colonists. In 1773 Britain tried to save the financially troubled British East India Company by passing the Tea Act, which lowered the tax on tea shipped by the company to the colonies, giving the company an edge over tea smugglers. The colonists responded by refusing to buy English tea and refusing to allow it to be unloaded from British ships. In Boston protesters dressed as American Indians dumped crates of tea into the water, and the event came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.

Parliament retaliated in 1774 by passing the Coercive Acts, which were labeled the "Intolerable Acts" by the colonists. These laws closed the port of Boston until the East India Company was repaid for the dumped tea, restricted the powers of the Massachusetts colonial legislature, and permitted British soldiers and officials accused of capital crimes to be tried in England

rather than in the hostile colony. In addition, Parliament appointed General Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army in North America, as the governor of Massachusetts. Gage was to enforce the Coercive Acts.

Representatives of 12 colonies and Canada met in September 1774 to consider what action to take against Parliament. The delegates to the First continental congress agreed that the colonies, and not Parliament, had the right to tax and make laws for the colonies. They called for a complete trade boycott against Britain until the Coercive Acts were repealed, but they acknowledged Parliament's right to regulate trade. The Congress did not call for independence from Great Britain.

The war began in 1775 when General Gage tried to break up a Massachusetts militia group and seize its ammunition and supplies. On the evening of April 18, 1775, Gage ordered his troops to seize munitions at Concord. Militia messengers, including silversmith Paul Revere, rode on horseback the 18 miles from Boston to Concord to warn the militia. Militia forces met the redcoats in Lexington, and they exchanged fire. The British killed eight men and proceeded to Concord, where they again encountered militia companies. The British retreated to Boston after 273 redcoats were killed in the battle. The militia followed, laying siege to the city for almost one year.

In early May 1775 colonial delegates met in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. The New England militia was renamed the Continental Army, and george washington, a Virginia plantation owner who had served in the French and Indian War, was named commander. The delegates also made the Congress the central government for "The United Colonies of America."

King George III replaced Gage with General William Howe. The king had become concerned over mounting British casualties that accompanied battles in Massachusetts, including the Battle of Bunker Hill. On August 23, 1775, the king declared the colonies to be in rebellion and subjected colonial ships to seizure.

American troops invaded Canada in August 1775, capturing Montreal in November. However, their efforts to take the city of Quebec failed, and the troops were forced to withdraw. During the winter of 1775–76, Washington positioned artillery around Boston. In March 1776 a massive artillery attack on the city led British troops and more than one thousand Loyalists (colonists who supported the British) to flee on ships to Nova Scotia, Canada.

In June 1776, as the British assembled reinforcements for an invasion, the Continental Congress debated a declaration of the colonies' independence from Britain. thomas jefferson borrowed from the recently completed virginia declaration of rights in drafting the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia declaration, written by george mason, stated that government derived from the people, that individuals were created equally free and independent, and that they had inalienable rights that the government could not legitimately deny them. On July 4, 1776, the Congress declared that the colonies were free and independent states, and it adopted the Declaration of Independence.

On June 29, 1776, Howe led an invasion force of 32,000 troops, including 18,000 German mercenaries (Hessian troops), that landed off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The British attacked Washington's forces in New York on August 22, and by the end of the year Washington had abandoned New York City and had moved his troops into Pennsylvania. He made a successful surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey, on December 25, 1776. On January 3, 1777, Washington's troops defeated the British at Princeton, New Jersey. The two victories were critical to maintaining colonial morale, and by the spring of 1777 more than 8000 new soldiers had joined the Continental Army.

The British implemented a plan in 1777 that sought to end the war that year by separating New England from the colonies in the south. General John Burgoyne led British forces from Montreal toward Albany, New York. After securing a victory at Fort Ticonderoga on July 5, Burgoyne became overconfident. The Continental Army and local militia counterattacked, forcing Burgoyne to surrender his army after a battle at Saratoga, New York, on October 17.

To the south, Washington vainly tried to stop the British from taking Philadelphia, the home of the Continental Congress. His troops lost at the battle of Brandywine Creek, and Philadelphia fell to the British on September 26. The Congress moved to Baltimore, Maryland.

Despite the loss of Philadelphia and some discontent with Washington's leadership during the winter of 1777–78, American fortunes brightened in 1778. In February France signed a formal treaty of commerce and alliance with the American states. France sent a naval fleet along with military advisers and financial aid.

In June 1778 Washington attacked the British at Monmouth, New Jersey, but again was defeated. He then shifted his military strategy, keeping his troops encamped around British forces in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Although American forces led by George Rogers Clark regained control of the Ohio River Valley, British troops had success in South Carolina in 1779. However, in 1780 American troops prevailed in the Battle of Kings Mountain and again in the Battle of Cowpens in 1781. The British attempt to control the southern colonies ended in a stalemate.

In 1781 Washington's troops, with the assistance of the French Navy, cut off British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The Battle of Yorktown, in which British troops were outnumbered two to one, ended in a British surrender on October 19, 1781. This marked the end of major military actions in the War of Independence.

The defeat at Yorktown led to the resignation of the British prime minister and a desire by the new cabinet to begin peace negotiations, which commenced in Paris, France, in April 1782. The U.S. delegation included benjamin franklin, john adams, and john jay. The negotiators concluded a preliminary treaty on November 30, 1782, and a final agreement was signed in September 1783 and ratified by the Continental Congress on January 14, 1784.

In the Treaty of Paris the British recognized the independence of the United States. The treaty

established generous boundaries for the United States, with U.S. territory extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River in the west, and from the Great Lakes and Canada in the north to the thirty-first parallel in the south. The U.S. fishing fleet was guaranteed access to the fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Navigation of the Mississippi River was to be open to both the United States and Great Britain.

During the War of Independence, the Continental Congress struggled to formulate a constitution for the entity known as the United States of America. However, colonists were not interested in establishing a central government with broad powers because they feared replacing undemocratic British authority with a local version. Therefore, the articles of confederation that were drafted in 1777, but not ratified until 1781 by all the states, created only a national congress of limited authority. By the end of the war, Congress found itself receiving less cooperation from the individual states. The failure of the Articles of Confederation became apparent after the Treaty of Paris was ratified, leading to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 where the Founding Fathers would write the U.S. Constitution.

further readings

Marston, Daniel. 2002. The American War of Independence: 1774–1783. London, UK: Osprey.

York, Neil. 2003. Turning the World Upside Down: The War of American Independence and the Problem of Empire. New York: Praeger.


Boston Massacre Soldiers; Continental Congress; Declaration of Independence; Paine, Thomas; Washington, George. See also "Conflict and Revolution" section of Appendix.

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War of Independence

War of Independence:1 In Spanish history, see Peninsular War, 1808–14. 2 In U.S. history, see American Revolution.

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Independence, War of

Independence, War of. See Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

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War of Independence

War of Independence. See Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

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American Independence, War of

American Independence, War of See American Revolution

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