American Revolution (1775-1783)

Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Major Figures

George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) was a Revolutionary War hero whose persistence as commander in chief of the combined American and French forces led to victory for the Americans. Washington later served as the first president of the United States and is regarded as the father of the country. Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Bridges Creek, Virginia, the son of Augustine Washington and his wife, Mary Ball. His father was wealthy and held positions of importance in Virginia, serving as a sheriff, justice of the peace, and a church warden. After his father’s death when Washington was eleven, George lived with various relatives throughout Virginia. Primarily raised by his half-brother Lawrence Washington, a rich farmer with some political standing, Washington inhabited the upper echelons of Virginian society. Though erratic in nature, he received what amounted to at least the essential education required of his time.

Early Experience

By the time he was seventeen years old, Washington was working in the appointed position of county surveyor. He had already learned much about the frontier by surveying the extensive holdings of Lord Fairfax in 1748, then spending two years in his official capacity throughout northern Virginia. Washington’s work as a surveyor gave him valuable familiarity with the frontier and led to the beginnings of his military experiences. In 1752, he was commissioned as a major in the Virginia militia and served during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. Washington played a role in igniting the conflict under the orders of Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie (1693-1770).

The governor ordered Washington to caution the French not to march into British territory in the Ohio Valley and then lead about 160 soldiers from Virginia to remove the French from Fort Duquesne. Although the French ultimately bested the Virginians, the clash launched the French and Indian war. Though British troops took charge of the conflict, Washington was promoted to colonel and put in charge of the Virginia soldiers who acted in support of the British regulars. He also served as the personal assistant to the British commander, General Edward Braddock. Among other conflicts, Washington took part in the campaign that resulted in the French loss of Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1758.

Political Career

After the battle at Fort Duquesne, Washington resigned his commission and went back to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, which he had inherited after the death of Lawrence Washington in the early 1750s. While overseeing his farming operations at Mount Vernon, Washington also began his political career. In 1758, he was elected to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, representing Fairfax County. Two years later, he began serving as a judge/justice of the peace for the same county, a position he held until 1774. These experiences led Washington to question British policies toward the colonies and express his opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 as well as other British tax policies.

While serving as a representative to the First Continental Congress in 1774, Washington further stated his support of the policy of nonimportation of goods. Washington believed that if the colonies refused to import goods from Great Britain, British policy toward the colonies might change. To that end, the First Continental Congress adopted a plan influenced by the Fairfax Resolves, resolutions partially written by Washington and first adopted by his home county. Through the Continental Association, policies against importing British goods were enforced.

Military Leadership

Another aspect of the Fairfax Resolves resulted in the formation of the Continental army. It was proposed that each county create its own militia company that colonists would control, not the governor appointed by Great Britain. Washington helmed the militia company from Fairfax County, and shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out, took on the leadership of the militia from a number of other counties. These militia companies were eventually combined to form the Continental army, which represented the collected colonists during the Revolutionary War after its launch in 1775. The Second Continental Congress named Washington the commander in chief of the Continental army on June 15, 1775. Washington also functioned as America’s de facto chief executive during the same period. He received no salary for his services and was only compensated for his expenses.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington faced challenges as commander in chief from the first. The British troops were more experienced, better armed, and had superior training. Washington sought to maintain discipline among his raw, often tattered soldiers. He also employed effective strategies to keep the enemy moving and smaller confrontations while keeping major engagements with the British to a minimum. Although he made some mistakes as general, such as during the Battle of New York in 1776, he also was capable of unexpected attacks that resulted in wins at Trenton and Princeton, for example. Washington also pulled off unanticipated moves that kept the Americans in the war, such as the winter crossing of the Delaware River.

Washington’s position strengthened in 1778 when France became allied with the American cause, and he began serving as the head of the combined forces. However, it was not until the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 that Americans seemed to make real progress. Despite low morale among American soldiers, victory was completed when the British completely withdrew by the early winter of 1783. It was Washington’s strong character and ability to hold the army together through the sheer force of his personality that ultimately resulted in the American victory.

President of the United States

Washington voluntarily stepped down as commander of the Continental army on December 23, 1783, at the end of the war. He then went home to Mount Vernon, where he began focusing on his estate businesses and farming while keeping abreast of land interests in the West and navigating the Potomac River. Washington’s political career was not over, however. Noting the failure of the original Articles of Confederation, he was a leader at the 1787 Federal Convention that began the ratification process for the new American Constitution. Within a few years, Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president of the United States and was also selected to serve a second term as well.

During his terms in office, Washington shaped the direction of the new country’s government. Between 1789 and 1792, he supported the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution and added several departments to the presidential cabinet. Washington also launched the federal court system and oversaw the implementation of Federalist financial policies. Washington’s second term focused on foreign policy issues, including remaining neutral as a new war broke out between Great Britain and France.

Washington’s presidency ended in 1797, and he returned to his home in Mount Vernon, but did not fully retire. War with France appeared to be imminent during the presidency of his successor, John Adams, and Washington was named commander in chief of America’s military interests. Diplomacy prevented the war and Washington remained at home, where he died on December 14, 1799.

King George III

King George III (1738-1820) was the British monarch during the American Revolution. His treatment of the American colonies caused the war for independence, and he was held responsible for the loss of the colonies. Born George William Frederick June 4, 1738, in London, England, George III was the son of Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales, and his wife, Augusta. Frederick was the son of King George II, who was still reigning when Frederick died. George III was twelve years old at the time of Frederick’s death. Because of his mother’s coddling and overprotectiveness, George III lacked maturity and real-world experience. He was also greatly influenced by his family’s German roots, as his great-grandfather, George I, and grandfather, George II, focused much of their interest on their native German states rather than Britain.

Britain’s Monarch

In 1760, the twenty-two-year-old George assumed the British throne upon the death of his grandfather. As a young king, George III enthusiastically embraced his new duties and played an active role in controlling the actions of Parliament. He enjoyed the political game and expertly played opposing forces against each other to realize his personal goals. George III also used flattery and his friendship as a means of gaining the loyalty of those whom he wanted to use. Although he could be overly trusting of people, he was also inflexible about matters that were important to him.

Within a few years of becoming king, George began directing Parliament to enact measures to better control and increasingly tax the American colonies. The colonists resisted his actions and grew ever more frustrated with Parliament, the king, and his series of prime ministers beginning in the mid-1760s. George III was oblivious to the colonists’ intense disgust over the situation, and he continued to tighten his grip. American colonials saw George III as a tyrant against whom they needed to protect themselves. Their attitude further angered the king and compelled him to take actions he deemed necessary to end their disobedience.

Loss of the Colonies

By 1773, George III had his ideal prime minister in office, Lord North, who assisted in getting the Tea Act passed by Parliament. This act gave the East India Company sole control of the market for tea in the colonies, outraging Americans. In response to the act, American colonists tossed hundreds of pounds of tea into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. In response, George III had Parliament pass the so-called “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, which further restricted colonial action but also unified many colonists against the king.

The American colonists soon declared war on Britain and its king. Having declared the colonies in rebellion in 1775, George III welcomed the conflict as a chance to demonstrate to other British colonies the mother country’s power. Although British troops did well early on in the war, the frustrated Americans fought tenaciously against their oppressors. Even though they declared their independence from Britain in 1776, George III would not accept losing the colonies.

The Revolutionary War continued through the early 1780s. By this time, George had lost the support of many wealthy British allies who wanted the war to end. George III, however, had no intention of stopping, despite a devastating loss at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Battles in the American Revolution continued for two more years as George III lost power at home but still insisted he would emerge victorious. Lord North was forced out of office in 1782, and George III signed the Treaty of Paris to end the war in 1783.

Declining Years

After losing the American colonies, George III found his political power had decreased. He was compelled to take William Pitt the Younger as his prime minister. As Pitt’s influence increased, George III’s fell even further until Pitt resigned in 1801. Although George III regained some of his sway at this time, his mental health had not been strong for some time and this problem affected his ability to rule England.

Beginning in about 1788, George III suffered from wild emotional swings and seemed to act mentally deranged. It is now believed he had porphyria, a hereditary condition affecting the metabolism that caused these emotional extremes. George III had several serious, long-lasting episodes of mental illness. The final one began in 1810 and resulted in George III’s son, Prince George, acting as regent beginning in 1811. Also both blind and deaf by the end of his life, George III died in London on January 29, 1820. Prince George succeeded him and reigned for the next decade as King George IV.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) played a significant political and philosophical role during the American Revolution, serving as the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson later served the young United States as secretary of state, vice president, and president. Born April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Jefferson was the eldest son of Peter Jefferson, a farmer, surveyor, and public figure. Through his mother, Jane Randolph, Jefferson was related to a prominent Virginia family and inherited significant wealth and landholdings, where he built his estate Monticello. Jefferson also received an impressive education for an American of his time. He attended boarding schools, then studied science, history, philosophy, and literature at the College of William and Mary and studied law under George Wythe, the “Father of American Jurisprudence.”

Completing his legal education with Wythe, Jefferson began his professional career as a lawyer after being admitted to the bar in 1767. Although he had a thriving legal practice for a number of years, the American Revolution changed his destiny. As the Revolution began in 1774, the courts were suspended and Jefferson could no longer work as a lawyer. Instead, he embraced the revolutionary cause and used his legal know-how to that end.

Toward War

Even before the American Revolution broke out, Jefferson served the public in elective office, one of his significant contributions to the movement. Soon after beginning his legal career, Jefferson was elected to the first elected governmental body in the colonies, Virginia’s House of Burgesses, in 1768. After the Revolution began, Jefferson served in the First Continental Congress and wrote the precursor to the Declaration of Independence, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), which pushed colonists closer to war with Britain for their freedom. In a significant example of his philosophical contribution to the revolutionary effort, Jefferson claimed in the document that the American colonists had a natural right to self-government.

The Declaration of Independence

Jefferson continued to combine leadership roles in both the political and philosophical arenas as the brewing revolution grew more heated. While serving in the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Jefferson was appointed as the head of the committee charged with writing what became the Declaration of Independence. Nearly entirely composed of Jefferson’s words, the legal document officially stated that the American colonies would no longer be part of the British Empire, but its own separate country.

In the Declaration, he built on the ideas first espoused in A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson further claimed that Americans had inalienable rights to equality and freedom, including the right of revolution. For example, while composing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson contributed the significant phrase “all men are created equal,” an idea fundamental to the foundation of the United States. The liberal, freedom-emphasizing philosophies he espoused as the spokesman for the revolutionary cause guided the movement.

Governor of Virginia

Although Jefferson’s most significant contribution to the revolution came with the Declaration of Independence, he served in other ways as well. Jefferson was elected to a seat of Virginia’s Legislative Assembly, before winning the governor’s office. Beginning in June 1779, Jefferson began acting as the governor of Virginia, when the region was significant to the ongoing war.

During his time in office, Jefferson faced some difficulties as the British temporarily won the capital city of Richmond and other territories after a 1781 invasion. Virginia was not prepared for the British assault, and Jefferson himself had little means to defend his state. Jefferson and the government retreated from the British and housed themselves in safer locations. Though Jefferson was absolved of any wrongdoing in a subsequent inquiry conducted by the Assembly, it contributed to questions about his political fitness for years afterward. He also was personally hurt by public criticism of his actions.

Despite quitting as governor by 1782 and vowing to leave public service, Jefferson began serving in the United States Congress in 1783, drafting governmental territorial regulations and helping create foreign policy for the young country. Beginning in 1784, Jefferson spent five years in Europe first as part of a commission charged with negotiating commerce treaties with other countries and later as the American representative in France. When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789, he continued to negotiate with foreign countries as he became President George Washington’s secretary of state. Frustrated by his lack of success in improving America’s position and with war breaking out between France and Great Britain, Jefferson resigned in 1793.

National Office

Though Jefferson wanted to end his public life and retire to Monticello, his greatest political offices were yet to come. In 1796, the Democratic Republicans selected Jefferson as their presidential candidate. By losing to John Adams, Jefferson was elected to the vice presidency and served one term before running for president again. Adams lost the 1800 election to Jefferson, who was reelected for a second term in 1804.

During Jefferson’s presidency, he doubled the size of the young country through the Louisiana Purchase and enacted numerous governmental reforms during his first term. Jefferson dealt with the potential of war with Great Britain during his second term. During both terms, he had to fight several undeclared wars, including the Barbary Coast Wars of 1801 to 1805, though he personally did not believe in having a significant military.

At the end of his presidency in 1809, Jefferson finally retired to Monticello where he continued to advise members of his Democratic Republican political party, other elected officials, and subsequent presidents, including James Monroe. He also founded and planned the University of Virginia and corresponded with the leading intellectuals of the day. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, at Monticello.

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was an important general for the Continental army during the Revolutionary War before he defected to the British side of the conflict in 1780. Born Benedict Arnold V on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold was the son of Benedict Arnold IV and his wife, Hannah Waterman King. Although the family was wealthy from land and commerce interests during Arnold’s early childhood, his father lost much of the money on failed business schemes and became an alcoholic. Because his father was no longer able to afford it, Arnold’s superior education was discontinued and he lacked direction for some time. His life took a turn for the better when two cousins took him on as an apprentice at their apothecary when he was fourteen years old.

Military Career

Arnold’s military career began while he completed his apprenticeship. He served in the New York colonial militia as well as during the French and Indian Wars, in which he fought in three battles. He deserted his commission both times, though his desertion during the French and Indian Wars was prompted by his mother’s imminent death.

By the early 1760s, Arnold’s father had died, and Arnold had founded his own apothecary in New Haven, Connecticut, with the help of a cousin. A successful business and family man, Arnold made his fortune as a merchant during the 1760s. He accumulated much of his money at sea by trading horses and livestock in Canada and the West Indies on ships he owned. Arnold was also believed to occasionally engage in smuggling. The knowledge he gained from his naval activities would prove useful when the Revolutionary War broke out in the 1770s.

Patriot Army

Before the American Revolution began, Arnold served as a captain of citizen soldiers in New Haven in 1774. He later joined the Patriot Army as a colonel in 1775 after the war broke out. Leading men to Boston in 1775, Arnold was involved with battles that led to the capture of both Fort Ticonderoga in New York and a British fort in Canada. In one of his early significant military operations, he led a group of one thousand American soldiers trying to occupy Quebec, Canada.

During the doomed combat in Quebec, Arnold suffered serious injury when he was shot in the leg. Although Arnold’s forces were unable to complete the task and hold Quebec, his spirited, or perhaps obstinate, actions and leadership ensured his promotion to brigadier general in the Continental army. Despite requiring months of recovery time for his leg wound, Arnold was still able to contribute to the war effort by demonstrating his military skill at sea. In 1776, Arnold helmed a fleet of ships that engaged British gunboats at two sites in New York: Lake Champlain and Valcour Island. His ships won both battles. It was his naval triumph at Valcour Island that especially brought him fame during the revolution.

Though Arnold had successes as a military officer for the revolutionaries, his violent temper and personal resentment of higher authorities sometimes created problems for him. He was often in conflict with other officers as well as Congress and faced court-martial on several occasions. In 1777, Arnold considered resigning his commission because other junior officers were promoted ahead of him, though he did eventually receive a promotion to major general. Only the personal intervention of his friend General George Washington ensured that Arnold remained in military service after he threatened to quit on this as well as another occasion.

Despite such issues, Arnold continued to act as a brave leader for the Americans. In 1777, he was in charge of a successful attack on British troops in Danbury, Connecticut. His skills as a military planner also led to the American victory at the key Battle of Saratoga, defeating British General John Burgoyne (1722-1792). However, during the battle, Arnold suffered injuries to the same leg shot in Quebec, and he was unable to command troops in the field again. Instead, in 1778, he became the governor of Philadelphia, a post he used to further his own business and personal interests.

Shifting Loyalties

Arnold’s political loyalties started to undergo a transformation during this time. Influenced by his second wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, who came from a secretly loyalist family, Arnold’s change of heart also was shaped by the French who joined the American side of the conflict. Though he was court-martialed in 1778 for misusing government property while serving in Philadelphia, Arnold was given a new position of power that same year: fort commander at West Point in New York.

Soon after taking over this post, Arnold made a deal to sell the West Point fort to the British for a significant sum of money, 20,000 pounds sterling. The deal was never completed because Arnold’s treason was discovered when the go-between carrying related documents was captured. In 1780, he defected to the British side, which immediately made him a brigadier general. Arnold was put in charge of British forces acting against Americans. British troops under his command raided towns in Connecticut and burned both Richmond, Virginia, and New London, Connecticut.

The British never fully trusted Arnold, and he was not allowed to deal with any military matters of importance or sensitivity. Though the British rewarded him with an audience with King George III in 1781 and a large estate in Canada several years later, his attempts to volunteer again for military service were refused. Arnold focused again on merchant activities in both Canada and England. By the end of his life, however, Arnold’s business interests as well as his health were failing miserably. He died in debt in London on June 14, 1801.

General Cornwallis

British General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) led troops at the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and surrendered, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War. Born on December 31, 1738, Charles Cornwallis was born into a prominent British noble family. He received his education at Eton College and Clare College, Cambridge, England.

Early Military Career

Cornwallis began his military career when he was about eighteen years old. In 1756, he joined the First Foot Guards as an ensign. After a brief stint at a Turin-based military academy in 1757, Cornwallis saw action during the Seven Years War as a part of a regiment assigned to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. He took part in battles in Europe, including Kirch-Denkern, Wilhelmstadt, and Lutterberg. By 1761, he was named a lieutenant colonel in the Twelfth Regiment.

While Cornwallis was establishing himself as an experienced, talented military man, he also began a political career. In 1760, he was elected to the House of Commons, representing a family borough in Suffolk. When Cornwallis’s father died in 1762, he became the second Earl Cornwallis and took over his father’s seat in the House of Lords. While serving in the House of Lords, Cornwallis disagreed with the severe treatment of the American colonies as laid out by King George III and his prime minister, Lord North. Despite this opinion, he did have the king’s favor as one of his advisors and a lord of the bedchamber. In 1770, Cornwallis was given the esteemed position of constable of the Tower of London and also joined the privy council.

Service in the Colonies

After being promoted to the rank of major general in 1775, Cornwallis was sent to the colonies in a military capacity in 1776. He had the command of ten regiments of British troops dispatched as reinforcements for Generals Henry Clinton (1738-1795) and William Howe. After arriving in America, Cornwallis saw action in New York in late summer and early fall of 1776. He also had a role in the British occupation of New Jersey. In 1777, Cornwallis participated in the Battle of Brandywine as the commander of a division of troops helmed by Howe.

Cornwallis soon grew frustrated with the British military response to the revolting colonists, primarily because of his new superior. When General Henry Clinton became the commander of British military interests in America, he put a conservative strategy into place. Clinton was already critical of Cornwallis for not seizing General George Washington when he had the chance on several occasions. Clinton was also threatened by Cornwallis’s position as his designated successor, and he regarded Cornwallis as arrogant. Thus, Clinton and Cornwallis had a tense relationship at best.

Despite this situation, Cornwallis continued to play his role on the battlefield. During the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Cornwallis commanded some British troops counterattacking men led by Nathanael Greene as Clinton directed the British retreat from Philadelphia. After spending much of 1779 on leave in Britain with his dying wife, Jemima Tulkiens, Cornwallis returned to America and resumed his military position in 1780. He helped plan and take part in the attack on Charleston, which resulted in the city’s surrender in May 1780.

Command in the South

By the middle of 1780, tensions with Clinton eased as Cornwallis essentially took charge of British troops located in the South. Although Cornwallis still reported to Clinton, distance and the political support of George Sackville Germaine, the English secretary of state for the colonies, allowed Cornwallis freedom to run his command as he pleased. In addition to turning South Carolina into a supply base desperately needed by the British, Cornwallis led troops to victory at Camden while marching on the Carolinas.

Cornwallis’s strategy, however, contributed greatly to Britain’s eventual defeat. The bold general believed that the best way to defend the land Britain had regained in the South was to attack Virginia. But Cornwallis had neither enough troops nor the support of enough Loyalists to complete this mission. Cornwallis also kept changing his mind on the approach his strategy would take. By the time he was forced to surrender to General George Washington after being defeated at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Cornwallis had lost about 25 percent of British troops serving in America.

Later Career

In spite of this failure, Cornwallis was generally not blamed for the loss in Britain, and his career continued to thrive. Though he initially refused it several times, he took on the post of the governor general of Bengal in India in 1786, a position of greater responsibility than the one he held in America. Cornwallis was able to build up British rule in India as well as other parts of Asia. As an administrator, he was a reformer who improved Britain’s civil administration and took on corruption in Britain’s India Company. Also a military leader in the colony, Cornwallis made the best of the troops available from the India Company and essentially won the Third Mysore War in the early 1790s.

After going back to Britain and being given the title of marquess, Cornwallis continued to act in his government’s interest as both a diplomat and military expert in several significant hot spots, including Ireland, Flanders, and India. After returning to Bengal in 1805, he died on October 5, shortly after his arrival there.

Major Battles and Events

Lexington and Concord

By the spring of 1775, the dispute between American colonists and the British government had reached a fever pitch. Disagreements over taxes and other acts of Parliament aimed at colonists had raged for ten years. Tensions between those living in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and the mother country were even greater because outspoken Bostonians had protested more actively, which sometimes resulted in violence. They had organized efforts against King George III and his prime minister. Samuel Adams and other leaders had formed the Sons of Liberty, an opposition group that argued “no taxation without representation.”

The Boston Tea Party enraged Parliament. The king and Parliament responded by passing a series of laws to punish Boston residents. General Thomas Gage, already the commander of the English forces in the colonies, became the new governor of Massachusetts. The king thought a military commander like Gage could better control these unruly dissenters.

These events drove a bigger wedge between the Americans and the British. Leading up to April 1775, rumors circulated as to when a rebellion would occur. The First Continental Congress had already taken place, and a Second Continental Congress was planned. General Gage had concerns that the Sons of Liberty and others might rebel. He also got word that colonial leaders had stockpiled weapons inland at Lexington and Concord. Concord, about eighteen miles east of Boston, and Lexington a few miles closer, both lay in present-day Massachusetts. Gage and other military leaders constructed a plan to ensure that potential rebels would not have these arms for a possible uprising.

On April 16, 1775, silversmith Paul Revere got word that Gage’s troops planned to take the patriot’s magazines. He did not know the exact details, but he and other American leaders developed a counterplan to assist the Minutemen of Massachusetts when this mission began. Revere had planned to cross the Charles River and ride into Lexington to warn the militiamen. He also came up with a backup plan in case he could not cross the river. In the Old North Church, which had already become a regular venue for the voices of discontent to organize against the British, lamps would hang to warn that the Redcoats were coming and by what route: “One if by land, two if by sea.”

Gage’s plan was kept as secret as possible. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was selected to lead a column of twenty-one companies to destroy these American munitions. Smith was to march to Concord, burn and dismantle the stockpile, and return to Boston. Only top commanders were privy to the scheme. British troops had been told to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. After the soldiers had turned in for the night of April 18, their sergeants put their hands over the sleeping soldiers’ mouths as they awoke them. They slipped out of their barracks and onto the Boston Common. From there, some 600 to 800 soldiers departed at about 10:30 at night. Though the British followed every precaution they could to not disturb townspeople, onlookers noticed their departure from Boston across the water toward Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere had a friend place the two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church while he crossed the harbor. Once on land again, he borrowed a friend’s horse and headed to warn the Minutemen that the British were coming.

William Dawes, a shoemaker, joined Revere in the effort to warn fellow patriots. They took separate routes from Boston, but met again at Lexington where they informed Captain John Parker’s company. The American response to Smith’s mission involved communication from several points between the church and the weapons caches at Lexington and Concord. Alarm bells in hamlets along the way and patriot gunshots signaled that the British troops were on the way.

Captain Parker had assembled his militiamen on the Lexington village green, ready for the Redcoat’s approach. A detachment from Smith’s column came within view of the Minutemen in Lexington. Parker had told his men to stand their ground, but not to fire unless fired upon. He also reportedly said, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Details of events after this are hazy. After shots were fired (who shot first is also disputed), a British officer directed his men to fire toward Parker’s militia. Eight Americans were killed and ten were wounded.

The exchange at Lexington took about a half hour. By this time, Smith had rejoined the detachment and wanted to fulfill his mission. At Concord, word of the battle of Lexington soon arrived. Colonel James Barrett was organizing 250 Minutemen from Concord. He knew it would take time for the British to find the hidden ammunition and cannon. So as they filed into Concord, Barrett ordered his men atop a low ridge about 1,000 yards north of the bridge over the Concord River. From here, Barrett’s men could see the town.

The British came into Concord and found some of the stored ammunition. Some time after 10:00 a.m., these weapons were placed in the middle of the road and burned. By this time more than four hundred Minutemen had arrived prepared to battle at Concord. Barrett’s men, ready to retaliate anyway, saw the smoke from atop the ridge and assumed the British were burning the town. A few minutes later, the militia advanced toward the bridge. The patriots’ first shots killed three British soldiers and wounded eight others. After much indecision, Colonel Smith ordered his men to return toward Boston. About one mile toward Lexington, these British soldiers came into view of American marksmen planted out of sight. Their accuracy was devastating, and Redcoats collapsed at the hand of American gunfire.

General Gage sent reinforcements under Commander Hugh Percy. If it were not for Percy, the British would have suffered a complete massacre. Percy arrived at Lexington and provided a safe return for the exhausted Redcoats who had made the journey from Boston to Concord and were now returning.

Before the British soldiers returned to Boston, an estimated 3,500 colonials had responded to the calls to arms from Revere and others. The British suffered a total of seventy-three casualties and 200 were injured or missing. Colonists lost forty-nine men, thirty-nine suffered wounds, and twenty-six became missing. Percy responded to the fight, “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken.” Protecting most of the weapons and running the Redcoats back to Boston gave the colonists high morale. It also signaled to the British that the chances for a peaceful solution to the conflict were basically impossible. The Revolutionary War had begun.

Bunker Hill

The battle of Bunker Hill took place between the American colonists and regular British troops in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1775. This was the first large-scale battle in the American Revolution. The colonists had yet to officially create the United States and at the time of the battle, there was not yet a unified position for a war against the mother country. The bloody Bunker Hill battle left the British wary of their opponent’s strength. The Americans, as well, suffered great setbacks, including the death of one of the most respected revolutionary leaders, Dr. Joseph Warren (1741-1775).

The clash, which actually took place on Breed’s Hill, near Bunker Hill, occurred as both British and American military leaders were strategically preparing for war. After the initial shots at Lexington and Concord, the British had sent three major generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne—along with additional reinforcements to tame the colonies. The British commander of the American colonies, Thomas Gage, now had over five thousand troops to quell the colonial uprising. The volunteer American army consisted of about fifteen thousand men under the direction of an overly cautious Artemas Ward (1727-1800). The British generals arrived and began to prod General Gage to act more aggressively toward the uprising. They concocted a scheme to take the American forces on the Dorchester peninsula, which included Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill, and the city of Charlestown, strategically located across the water from the city of Boston. Americans overheard the plan and communicated it to the charismatic and respected Dr. Warren.

American Colonel Israel Putnam (1718-1790) convinced Warren that it was unwise to wait for the British to attack. He convinced Warren to take the high ground on the Dorchester peninsula and to fortify these hills, making the British pay if they attempted to follow through with their plans. Soon, American Colonel William Prescott (1726-1795) was given orders to take three regiments atop the peninsula and protect Bunker Hill. At nine o’clock on the evening of June 16, Putnam, Prescott, and twelve hundred men marched through the largely deserted town of Charlestown with three regiments plus a few hundred men from companies of Connecticut and New Hampshire. Most residents had fled inland for fear that the British might burn the city. Once the commanders arrived, a debate ensued about which hill provided a better position. Both options sat atop this peninsula overlooking Boston. Breed’s Hill was lower in elevation, but closer to Boston. The American army had no cannons powerful enough to reach the city or the British ships in the harbor from the higher Bunker Hill. Prescott and Putnam decided to station themselves on Breed’s Hill. After hours of diligent work, Prescott’s men built an earth bastion 160 feet long and eighty feet high, with enormously thick walls. Two British ships, the HMS Lively and the HMS Somerset, opened fire on the structure, but neither caused the fort any real damage.

By morning, another four hundred colonists joined the men atop Breed’s Hill. That afternoon, General Howe and 2,200 British troops headed to displace the Americans from their position. Howe was determined to reassert Britain’s power over the colonists, especially after the retreat from the earlier skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. He bombarded the city of Charlestown and launched a frontal assault. The colonials were hardly affected physically by the cannon fire, but became fearful of their aggressive opponent. Many of the officers from two of the Massachusetts regiments announced their exhaustion and withdrew, leaving Prescott with only three hundred of his own men and about two hundred of the Connecticut volunteers. One cannon ball tore the head off a soldier, causing a panic to carry through the garrison. Prescott ordered the corpse to be buried to calm his men.

Then the Redcoats eventually charged the hill. With limited powder and supplies, Putnam issued his famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” They waited, followed that order, and the enemy began to drop. Sharpshooters killed an estimated ninety-six men, causing the others to retreat. Howe and other British soldiers made additional charges up the hill, facing similar setbacks. Shots were also coming from houses within Charlestown. At the request of one of the British officers, the Royal Navy began to shoot heated cannon shots into Charlestown homes, burning over three hundred houses. Residents of Boston took to their rooftops to watch the battle.

In the immediate aftermath of this battle, neither side likely viewed it as a victory. Dr. Warren fought to the end, even with a bayonet wound to his arm. Outside the fort he tried to rally his men to take a stand, but was struck in the head by a bullet. He fell and died without a sound. The aftermath to the British army was gruesome as well. Bleeding Redcoats scattered from the hill across the Charles River into Boston. For the British, nineteen officers and 207 men had been killed, 40 percent of its fighting force. The American side lost 140 soldiers and suffered 301 wounded.


The last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Yorktown earned the American colonists a victory over the British. Both sides were worn down by 1781. Parliament had partially lost interest in waging this war and the American treasury was depleted. On March 20, British General Charles Cornwallis and his men had arrived from Wilmington, Delaware, in Yorktown, a small town on the banks of the York River in coastal Virginia on Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis felt that taking the colony of Virginia and advancing on into the Carolinas were the keys to winning the war. He had asked fellow General Henry Clinton, in New York at this time, to assist him in dividing the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. But miscommunication and differences of strategic opinion allowed George Washington’s army, assisted by the French, to win this battle.

British troop strength at this time numbered about 7,000, because Clinton did send a few men from New York. Washington and American ally French General Lafayette had planned to attack New York City. On August 14, Washington learned that French Admiral François Joseph de Grasse (1722-1788) would arrive from the West Indies to assist the Americans, not in New York, but in the Chesapeake Bay. When the American plans fell into enemy hands, and after receiving news from de Grasse, Washington saw a unique opportunity to pin Cornwallis and about one-quarter of the British forces in America in the Yorktown area. Most of the British force occupied a fortified camp on the south side of the mouth of the York River, with some across the water at Gloucester Point.

By September 1781, the combined French and American forces under Washington’s command numbered 14,000. Additionally, patriot forces from Virginia arrived, taking the total toward 20,000 against Cornwallis’s troops still under 10,000. The British were hemmed in with two options: starve or surrender.

The American bombardment began on October 9 after the army positioned heavy cannons aimed toward the British. At 3p.m., the Americans began heavy firing toward Yorktown that lasted six days. Cornwallis was shocked by the American capability. He had erroneously assured his men that their only opposition would be light artillery. On the contrary, one of the initial targets was the general’s headquarters in town. The American cannons shattered the three-story Georgian house that he had occupied. By October 14, the American forces had advanced within 200 yards of the British fortifications. British redoubts (forts) nine and ten were especially crucial to Washington’s success. He assigned two light infantry units to take them, one American under Colonel Alexander Hamilton and one French commanded by Lafayette. Soon, nearly one hundred heavy guns faced the enemy at point-blank range. The allied effort proved a rather easy task.

Cornwallis became desperate. Clinton’s reinforcements from New York, meant to arrive by sea, were delayed by indecision and horrible weather. Cornwallis gambled by trying to take his army out of Yorktown across the river and to the British outpost in Gloucester. He knew he would have to face his enemy to retreat northward, but felt he could overcome the smaller French and Virginian units. In the middle of the night on October 16, British troops boarded sixteen Royal Navy flatboats and ferried across the river successfully. Empty boats made their return to Yorktown for another round, but faced a heavy storm, which put a stop to this retreat plan. Soon after this delay, the general’s men informed him that they had only one hundred mortar shells remaining. The numbers of sick and wounded were growing. Cornwallis sought advice. Every one of his officers suggested surrender. As ignoble as it may have seemed, these men were confident that they had done all they could do. Cornwallis accepted the advice and began to dictate a historic letter to Washington offering a formal surrender: “Sir, I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side … to settle the terms for the surrender of the posts at York and Gloucester.”

The fighting was over. Soon not only the battle, but the entire conflict would end. The surrender ceremony was most formal. At 11 a.m. on October 19, Cornwallis signed the final draft of the surrender document, and over 7,000 British soldiers became prisoners of war. At roughly the same moment, General Clinton finally departed New York expecting to either assist his fellow general, or to arrive to greet a victorious Cornwallis. Like much of the world, Clinton was surprised to find how the Americans had finally defeated the British, several miles and two hundred years from the first British colony founded in America.

Later in the day on October 19, 1781, the failed British troops marched out to the field designated for formal surrender. The British bands played an ironic tune, “The World Turned Upside Down,” expressing their surprise and dismay of this turn of events. With French soldiers lined up on one side and Americans on the other, Lafayette noticed how the Brits looked only in the direction of the French forces. The French, a world power and a challenging adversary before, were easier for the defeated British to stomach, while they could not easily look the once-underdog rebels in the eyes. Lafayette responded by ordering his musicians to play “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” at which time the surrendering soldiers began to face the Americans.

Following the same reluctance, British Brigadier General Charles O’Hara (1740-1802)—Cornwallis had failed to show up for surrender—offered his sword to the French general. Count de Rochambeau (1725-1807) then ordered O’Hara to hand it over to General Washington. The American commander then directed O’Hara to hand over his sword to his second in command. The British soldiers then piled their muskets in the open field. Meanwhile, Washington had sent one of his aides to travel to Congress in Philadelphia to report the good news. The Congress received word in two days. London awaited the results for nearly two weeks of agonizing suspense. When British officers finally received word, they reported the surrender to Prime Minister Lord North, who responded, “Oh, God. It’s over. It’s all over.” The peace agreements would be ironed out by parties from both Britain and the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Key Elements of Warcraft


Although the traditional image of the British forces in the American Revolution is of red-coated regulars, a significant percentage of the troops fighting in America were German mercenaries known colloquially as “Hessians.” These mercenaries fought in nearly every major engagement of the war, some even seeing action on both sides of the conflict. After the war, thousands of mercenaries remained behind—some willingly, some not—as citizens in the United States and Canada.


Around one quarter of British forces, thirty thousand in all, were mercenaries. They were drawn almost exclusively from a few German principalities, over one half hailing from Hesse-Kassel, thus the “Hessian” nickname. These mercenary forces included regular line infantry, cavalry units, artillery (primarily manning three-pound guns), and skirmisher units known as Jaegers (German for “hunters”), who carried rifles and fought in loose formations ideal for the American wilderness.

As was typical for the times, most of the mercenaries were not professional soldiers but rather conscripts or victims of impressment. Commanded by career military officers, their pay often left much to be desired. Because of their often-involuntary service commitments and poor conditions in the field, desertion rates were rather high throughout the war, totaling 17 percent by war’s end. Some of these deserters disappeared into one of the colonies’ many German-American communities, while others went over to fight with the Americans. Diarist and soldier Joseph Plumb Martin wrote of one such deserter who was recaptured by the British, who then paid to refit him and put him back into a mercenary unit, where he fought until he was able to desert once again and rejoin the Americans at Valley Forge!

Mercenaries at War

The bulk of the mercenary units began to arrive in the summer of 1776; the first engagement to feature them in large numbers was the Battle of Long Island on August 27 of that year.

After 1777, mercenary troops were used largely in garrison duties, although there were Hessians present at nearly every conflict of the war. Perhaps the most well-known action involving German mercenaries was the Battle of Trenton, when nine hundred out of a unit of 1,400 were captured by the Americans after George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware on December 26, 1776.

Those nine hundred prisoners constituted a small fraction of the eventual twelve thousand mercenaries who did not return to Europe after the war, a loss rate of 40 percent. Of that total, around seven thousand were killed either in battle or due to other factors such as disease. The remainder stayed behind in the colonies, either out of choice or because there was no money to pay for their passage home. Many German-Americans today claim descent from these mercenary settlers.

The British, although benefiting from the increased manpower the mercenaries provided, paid a heavy financial price. In addition to the money spent raising and transporting the units, Britain also paid heavy indemnities to Hesse-Kassel after the war to compensate for the manpower lost to the region. The Hessian mercenary meanwhile had left a deep impression on the American psyche; Washington Irving’s legendary “Headless Horseman” was said to be the vengeful spirit of a Hessian killed in battle, a personification of the lingering trauma of the war.


If there is one iconic image of the American Revolution, it is most likely the minuteman, a rough-and-ready patriot dressed in homespun clothes defiantly clutching his hunting rifle and successfully challenging the might of the British Army. Minutemen and their militia cousins did indeed play an important role in the American Revolution, both during the run-up to the conflict and in the war itself. The first shots of the war fired at Lexington and Concord were from militia troops, as were the first casualties. Perhaps more important is the symbolism attached to the militiaman, who represents the individualistic and democratic spirit of America.

English Roots

The militia tradition was deeply rooted in English society, stretching all the way back to the Dark Ages-era Anglo-Saxonfyrd (“army”), which effectively made every freeman a part-time soldier. Later English laws of the Middle Ages and Renaissance required all male subjects of a certain age to practice regularly with a weapon, most commonly the longbow, and to be able to equip themselves for war should their lord call them up.

Although Parliament’s control of the local London militia gave it a leg-up in the English Civil War, that conflict also spelled the end of citizen soldiers in Great Britain as a regular army, the first “redcoats,” was established in its wake.

Militias in America

In America, however, the nature of life in an environment surrounded by enemies—from hostile Native Americans to other colonial powers—and the lack of regular army troops to offer protection virtually dictated the need for a trained and organized citizen militia. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, every colony save Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania had passed militia laws. These laws generally required every able-bodied white male to possess a firearm and to serve in a local unit, which was to meet periodically to train and to respond to emergency calls from the government.

There were three distinctions of militias: common, enrolled, and volunteer. The common militia was simply the pool of available manpower, the “every able-bodied white male” of the relevant county or city. Enrolled militias were organizations that met and trained more regularly, taking their role in the militia more seriously; these units are roughly analogous to the modern-day National Guard. The volunteer militia was made up of middle- and upper-class gentlemen who volunteered to serve during emergencies and was often made up of cavalry and artillery units, as these well-to-do volunteers could afford the expensive equipment necessary to field such formations.

Regulation of these militia units was quickly taken over by the colonies’ legislative assemblies, undercutting the colonial governor’s authority and localizing control. The militiamen, for their part, also approached these “New World” militias differently. They did not view themselves as conscript soldiers but as volunteers who had negotiated their position with actual or theoretical equals with the understanding that they could walk away from the agreement at any time.

In practice, such high-minded ideals were quickly forgotten, especially as the colonial frontier expanded away from the Atlantic seaboard. The militia units of the East were soon treating their periodic training sessions as merely a social occasion, an excuse to get together with friends and get drunk. Furthermore, as the colonial countryside became increasingly pacified and the need for defensive militias became less pressing, exemptions were enacted for certain special cases. Some exemptions could simply be purchased—a potential militia officer could pay money to “sponsor” a replacement who would then serve in his place. Other exemptions were legislated to cover members of professions deemed important to the continued functioning of society, men such as jailers, millers, gunsmiths, teachers, and legal and government professionals.

The lax nature of most militia’s training regimens and the inherent problems caused by the exemption laws gave militias a low reputation among British regulars during colonial conflicts such as the French and Indian War. Militiamen were often relegated to auxiliary duties, if they were used at all.


During the years preceding the American Revolution, the nature of militias began to change. Beginning in 1774, a new type of militiaman, the “minuteman,” began to appear. Although the term was coined during the French and Indian War twenty years earlier, the new minutemen—so-named for the requirement that they be ready to take up arms at a minute’s notice—were a product of the rapidly growing anti-British sentiment, particularly in Massachusetts.

In an effort to purge the Massachusetts militia of Tories (British loyalists), the new minuteman units, which were made up of men sympathetic to the colonial cause, were charged with electing their own leaders. This gave the units a decidedly democratic aura that only helped to enhance their symbolic image once the war began.

Minutemen were the first American casualties at Lexington and led the fight at Concord, yet they also fought alongside the older militia units in both battles. The following year the Continental Congress recommended that each colony create its own minuteman units. Maryland, New Hampshire, and Connecticut followed this suggestion, creating their own regiments. The Connecticut minutemen would go on to fight in several important engagements at the outset of the war.

The success of the militiaman was owed to a variety of factors. Armed with a rifle, he could deliver accurate fire at a much longer range than the British musket. A lifetime of living on the edge of largely undeveloped land, as well as experience with Native American tactics in war, had ideally prepared the average American for irregular warfare (relying on accurate rifle fire and refusing to stand for battle in the open field, instead utilizing available terrain and cover) to sap the numbers and morale of the British.

As the American army began to take on a more regular appearance, the minuteman regiments were gradually absorbed into it. Despite their occasional successes, militia troops had neither the will nor the means to wage extended campaigns against the British and suffered a number of major defeats at the hands of their red-coated opponents. Nevertheless, the impact of militiamen during the early days of the Revolution was not soon forgotten, and the tradition was soon endorsed in the Constitution in the form of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Regardless of whatever controversy the amendment would later cause, it is a clear demonstration of importance and esteem that Americans ascribed to militias in the wake of the Revolution that they helped win.

Impact of the American Revolution

The outcome of the Revolutionary War on British politics, economics, and diplomacy was profound and far reaching. Before Britain’s defeat, the British government feared losing their vast overseas empire and the important economic, financial, and strategic benefits that accompanied it. Evidence of this concern can be seen in the staggering quantity of manpower and resources the Crown committed to fighting the American rebellion.

When the mother country lost one-fourth of her subjects and more than one-fourth of her economic resources in the revolution, Britons began prophesying the downfall of the British Empire. Yet the mood in Great Britain in 1783 was not one of complete hopelessness. Many believed that the loss of the American colonies did not spell disaster for Great Britain. Some, including Scottish economist Adam Smith, argued that colonies were redundant, costly impediments to commerce. He, as did many others, maintained that the mother country would be better off without them in the long run.

In the end, the loss of America had significant—though not entirely negative—consequences for the British Empire. The defeat in North America forced Britain to consider military, administrative, and financial reform; this bolstered the country’s stature in Europe and enabled it to better govern its remaining colonies. The American Revolution also pressured Parliament into abandoning its right to tax overseas colonies and to switch from a mercantilist to a free-trade policy. Furthermore, it boosted the emerging movement to democratize politics in Britain and Canada and to reform the English constitution. Lastly, the American Revolution, in a number of ways, contributed to the expansion of the British Empire in Canada, Australia, India, Egypt, and West Africa.

In spite of American independence, Britain and the United States remained closely intertwined. During the nineteenth century, they formed a single, integrated Atlantic economy due to their standing as each other’s largest trading partners. They also enjoyed a mutually beneficial cultural bond nurtured by extensive emigration from Great Britain to the United States. Statistics reveal that more than four million English, Scottish, and Welsh citizens came to America between 1820 and 1930.

Judging by the steady flow of people and goods between the two countries, as well as Britain’s continued rise as a global power, the impact of the American Revolution might seem inconsequential. But the revolution significantly refocused the British Empire and initiated a sequence of events that brought about fundamental changes in the Empire and Britain. Some believe Britain’s loss of the American colonies indirectly saved the country from defeat and domination by France because the defeat showed Britain its military had to be reformed. As a result, the command structure was reorganized, the armed forces were expanded, and the Royal Navy was made much more effective—just in time for the Herculean struggle with Napoleonic France. Had Britain not been inspired by the American disaster, it may well have lost to France and not have achieved world dominance in the nineteenth century.

More directly, the American Revolution softened Britain’s practice of taxing its colonies, which helped the country retain its Empire as long as it did. This new attitude of treating colonies with some regard for their welfare even affected Ireland. Fearing Ireland might go the same way as America, Britain began modifying its policy toward the country. The 1801 Act of Union, a part of a larger reform movement that leaned toward Ireland’s favor, ultimately failed, though it did influence the way Britain ran its Empire.

The American Revolution also influenced the way Britain handled its foreign policy. The country’s victory at Waterloo in 1815 largely eliminated France as an imperial rival for much of the nineteenth century, gaining Britain time to expand its empire. The same could be said of Spain. After its defeat at the hand of Napoleon, Spain went from being Britain’s enemy to its ally, which allowed more British influence in Latin America. In 1786, the British took formal control of British Honduras (Belize), and in 1810, Britain signed a treaty with Portugal that linked itself with Brazil, making it part of an informal trade-based British Empire. In the long run, then, French and Spanish support of the American Revolution backfired, leading to their relative decline, which allowed Britain to expand its sphere of influence.

The revolution also acted as a powerful stimulus for Britain’s decision to abolish slavery. When the colonies were lost, a huge segment of the influential pro-slavery faction of Parliament went with them. The first petition to end slavery was presented in Parliament in 1783—the year the revolution ended—but the law abolishing the practice was not passed until 1807. After the sugar trade declined in 1833 and the Caribbean lobby in Parliament had dried up, slavery was ended throughout the British Empire. The abolishment of slavery in Britain and the Empire resulted in increasing British military power in Africa to intercept the slave trade. This led to the arrival of more Britons (including missionaries such as David Livingstone) on the continent, whose activity and publicity led to further influence and a gradual extension of the British Empire. In this way, the American Revolution had a profound long-term impact on the British Empire and Africa as a whole.

Africa was not alone, as the loss of the colonies affected other parts of the world, too. British presence and influence in Canada increased as roughly sixty thousand Loyalists fled northward. Australia was also impacted as Britain could no longer dump its convicted criminals on the shores of the United States; instead, the mother country sent them to Australia, where they helped grow and develop that country. Later, the Civil War disrupted cotton exports to Britain, which led to the disastrous “cotton famine” of 1862. Britain was forced to find and develop new sources of cotton, especially in Egypt and India. As a result, India profited from increased British agricultural investments.