War for Independence (1775–1787)


In the last days of a long war, an anonymous letter circulated among the American soldiers encamped at Newburgh, New York. Composed without attribution by Major John Armstrong, an officer loyal to General Horatio Gates, it expressed outrage over the failure of Congress to fund the salaries, bounties, and pensions of the officer corps. It complained bitterly about the ingratitude of civilian leaders toward members of the armed forces. Anticipating a special meeting in the days ahead, the military camp buzzed with speculation about the Newburgh conspiracy.

General George Washington issued an order for a regular officers' meeting on the Ides of March, 1783. The commander-in-chief reported in advance that he would not attend, thus leaving the chair in the meeting to Gates. Another anonymous letter circulated, which suggested widespread agreement among the malcontents about a course of action. In all likelihood, a mutiny was in the offing.

The meeting came to pass in a building known as the Temple. Washington unexpectedly entered the hall, as Gates sat perplexed. The commander-in-chief asked the audience to remain patient, to remember posterity, and to save the republic. Speaking of the anonymous letters, he denounced the author for sowing seeds of discord among Americans. “My God!” he declared in exasperation before raising the rhetorical question: “What can this writer have in view?”

Washington paused, reached into his coat pocket, and took out a letter from a congressional delegate. With his eyes squinting, he stared intently at the lines on the paper. Suddenly, he stopped reading. Then he reached into his coat pocket again and took out a pair of reading glasses. “Gentlemen,” he stated, “you must pardon me.” He gestured to the audience: “I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself going blind.”

The sight of an aging, bespectacled warrior caught many off guard. The feelings of anger dissipated, while a sense of shame swept through the hall. The officers began to weep. After Washington exited the Temple, the Newburgh conspiracy came to an end.

Figure 2.1 Alexander H. Ritchie, Washington and His Generals, 1870. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Refusing to become an American Caesar, the commander-in-chief resigned his commission on December 23, 1783. His leadership forged a “patriotic band of brothers” during the War for Independence, but the military almost turned against Congress in the end. With the new government bankrupt, the unfunded liabilities to veterans amounted to as much as $6 million. Auction houses soon sold off naval warships to the wealthiest merchants. Service members pondered what happened yet clung to their concepts of republican virtue, which imparted meaning to their longsuffering. While an embattled populace decided who should rule at home, the American Revolution reaffirmed the principle of civilian authority over the armed forces.

The American Revolution commenced over eight years earlier, when the British Empire attempted to smash the colonial rebellion. As the Second Continental Congress gathered during 1775, military escorts accompanied the delegates to the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Following the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, Congress assumed the functions of an inter-colonial legislative body. Though refusing to declare independence that spring, a committee sought to procure military supplies. The delegates voted to borrow money for the purchase of gunpowder and passed resolutions that urged citizens to arm themselves. They opened a public debate on war and peace, while Massachusetts officials beseeched them to create a “powerful army.”

“Oh, that I was a soldier,” sighed the Massachusetts delegate John Adams, who encouraged Congress to take action. While several delegates already held military commissions from their assemblies, the 13 colonies possessed the potential to amass as many as 500,000 combatants through the enrolled militia system. However, at least one-third of the colonists remained loyal to the Crown. Many of the rest stayed uncommitted. Only individuals known as patriots volunteered to confront the armed might of His Majesty. If acts of violence gave birth to the United States, then the sacrifices of ordinary men and women nurtured a republican form of government. Their quest for home rule profoundly affected a Virginia delegate named Washington, who wore his buff and blue militia uniform to Congress in 1775.

American Crisis

Congress authorized the formation of America's first national institution, the Continental Army, on June 14, 1775. The delegates voted to raise 10 companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia and ordered them to protect New England. The next day, Congress appointed Washington as the commander-in-chief of “all the continental forces raised, or to be raised, for the defence of American liberty.” After offering addi­tional commissions to four major and eight brigadier generals, Congress adopted articles of war to govern their military conduct. The colonial assemblies still controlled their respective militia units, but henceforth Americans served under the coexistent authority of Congress.

Refusing to accept pay from Congress, Washington took command of the armed forces on July 2, 1775. As he inspected the encampments in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he found not an army but a rabble of 14,000. Immediately, he imposed a training regimen to discipline and to regulate the rank and file. He favored the application of harsh punishment for insubordination and approved the use of flogging for major infractions. Finding few good sergeants or competent lieutenants in the camps, he took personal responsibility for providing food and quarters. He ordered the distribution of firearms to the troops, because some carried nothing but pitchforks, pikes, and spears. Concerned about honor and reputation, he often reminded the Continentals of their shared devotion to “the glorious cause” of America.

While the Continentals formed a defensive line around Boston, Congress passed measures to expand the American military. On October 13, 1775, the delegates authorized the outfitting of vessels for the Continental Navy. Initially, they commissioned the Alfred,Andrew Doria, Cabot, andColumbus. David Bushnell, a student at Yale College, tested a submarine named the Turtle, which failed to torpedo any British ships. Less than half the 13 frigates ordered for the war sailed into action. Though mired in controversy, Commodore Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island briefly became the Navy's first and only commander-in-chief.

On November 10, 1775, Congress established a corps of marines to support the Navy on land and at sea. Tasked with a variety of missions, they primarily formed a shipboard security force to protect the captain and the officers. Moreover, sharpshooters stationed themselves on ship masts and picked off enemy officers, gunners, and helmsmen. Corps legends highlighted the prominence of the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia as the first recruit­ing post, while Captain Samuel Nicholas, whose family owned another tavern in the city, became the first commandant. During the Navy's inaugural cruise in the Caribbean, marines landed twice at Nassau to seize military stores from the British Empire.

Meanwhile, Washington endorsed a two-pronged invasion of Quebec. Colonel Benedict Arnold moved a Continental detachment through the Maine and Canadian wilderness. Until falling ill, General Philip Schuyler of New York commanded units in the Northern Department near Lake Champlain. General Richard Montgomery, formerly a Royal officer, assumed command of the operation and took St. Johns, Chambly, and Montreal. To face the British forces under Governor General Sir Guy Carleton, Arnold and Montgomery arrived at the outskirts of Quebec on November 13, 1775. The American assault that began the following month proved disastrous. Montgomery died from a bullet to his head, while Arnold received a wound in his leg. The next year, General David Wooster of Connecticut arrived with reinforcements for another failed assault. Unable to turn Quebec into a fourteenth colony, the Continentals retreated southward to Crown Point.

Washington sent Colonel Henry Knox, a corpulent Boston bookseller, to secure military stores at Fort Ticonderoga. He planned to transport captured weapons to the Continentals in Cambridge. Despite icebound roads and winter weather, his oxcarts and sleds moved 44 guns, 14 mortars, and a howitzer over 300 miles. They also dragged along 7,000 rounds of cannon shot, 2,000 muskets, and 31 tons of musket shot. Americans emplaced the artillery behind makeshift works on Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston. Facing a trap, General William Howe, the British commander, decided to evacuate the city. On March 17, 1776, British forces boarded ships at the wharves and departed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The reluctance of the Royal Army and Navy to crush the Continentals emboldened the radical voices in North America. Thomas Paine, a freelance writer in Philadelphia, authored a pamphlet in early 1776 titled Common Sense, which denounced the rule of King George III. “The blood of the slain,” Paine declared, and “the weeping voice of nature cries 'tis time to part.”

Paine's pamphlet discredited the notion of reconciliation with London, especially in the minds of the delegates to Congress. Rumors circulated in Philadelphia that the European powers planned to partition the colonies unless Americans unified. Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, introduced a resolution for formal separation from Great Britain that June. Congress passed it after weeks of debate, adopting a statement of purpose known as the “Declaration of Independence.” Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, another Virginia delegate, it announced the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” While listing the despotic acts of King George III, it asserted the right of the people “to provide new guards for their future security.” Consequently, Washington ordered it read to every brigade in the Continental Army.

The Continental Army prepared to defend New York from a British invasion that summer. Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American colonies, directed General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, to capture the harbor and to push up the Hudson River. British warships bombarded New York City in July, while 32,000 redcoats massed at Staten Island. On August 22, they went ashore at Gravesend Bay on Long Island.

With no more than 10,000 troops on Long Island, Washington attempted to hold the Brooklyn Heights. To the south stretched the Heights of Guan, which contained four key passes – Gowanus, Flatbush, Bedford, and Jamaica. Unfortunately, only five Americans guarded the last pass on the eastern end of the line. Howe's divisions maneuvered unchallenged through Jamaica, where the envelopment by the British cleared the high ground. In the Battle of Long Island, the Americans suffered 312 fatalities as well as 1,100 wounded or captured.

Howe delayed advancing into Brooklyn Village on August 29, when rain and fog gave Washington sufficient cover to escape. Overnight, Colonel John Glover's Marbleheaders of Massachusetts ferried the Continentals across the East River to Manhattan Island. Washington planned to conduct a “war of posts,” that is, holding fortifications while avoiding pitched battles with a more powerful enemy. Conversely, Howe intended to awe a weaker foe with a show of force on water and on land. In other words, neither side desired a bloody affair on Manhattan.

In mid-September, Howe avoided the American dispositions on Manhattan with a landing on their flank at Kip's Bay. When the Connecticut militia in the area panicked, an enraged Washington began flogging the officers with his riding cane. An aide grabbed the bridle of his horse to lead him from the fray. The outnumbered Americans reformed their lines between the rocky cliffs of Fort Washington and the Harlem River. The next day, the Battle of Harlem Heights checked the British advance with a rare demonstration of American resolve. Sparked by arson, the “Great New York City Fire” consumed buildings and supplies between Broadway Street and the Hudson River. A few weeks later, Howe outflanked Washington again by putting 4,000 men ashore through Hell Gate at Throg's Neck. British bugle calls signaled a fox chase, as militiamen began scurrying past the Bronx River for safety. At almost every turn, the Continentals abandoned their defensive lines on Manhattan.

The Continentals stiffened at White Plains, but Howe crossed the Bronx River to confront them on October 28. Despite losing the Battle of White Plains, Americans under General Alexander McDougall offered a furious defense of Chatterton's Hill. Washington ordered his men to retrench at North Castle. Howe repositioned his men on the east side of the Hudson around Fort Washington, which surrendered on November 16. On the west bank of the river, Fort Lee fell to the British four days later.

With the Americans on the run, Washington escaped from New York. He placed 5,500 troops under General Charles Lee at North Castle and dispatched 3,200 soldiers under General William Heath to Peekskill. Left with no more than 3,000 men, he staggered into New Brunswick, New Jersey. He hoped to salvage what remained of the Continental Army to fight another day, but he admitted to his brother that “the game is pretty near up.” Though dispirited from the series of defeats, he began to contemplate a Fabian strategy for harassment and attrition.

Figure 2.2 The Northern Campaigns


“These are the times that try men's souls,” wrote Paine, who joined the Continentals and became an aide to General Nathanael Greene. That winter, his pamphlet series titled The American Crisis denounced the “summer soldier” and the “sunshine patriot” for not remaining steadfast. He summoned his counterparts to stand firm against tyranny, warning them that the British planned to turn American homes “into barracks and bawdy-houses for Hessians.”

Once Washington retreated across the Delaware River, Howe accomplished nearly all of the British military objectives for 1776. Aware that Continental enlistments expired at the end of the year, he issued a proclamation that offered pardons to rebels swearing allegiance to the Crown. He sent a detachment with a naval escort to occupy Newport, Rhode Island. His troops dispersed to Amboy, New Brunswick, Kingston, Maidenhead, Princeton, Trenton, and Bordentown in New Jersey. While Hessian regiments guarded the advance outposts, the British commander retired to New York for the winter.

Eyeing 1,500 Hessians at Trenton, Washington gambled on Christmas night. Glover ferried 2,400 Continentals back across the icy Delaware to strike the outpost on the eastern side of the river. They completed the crossing after sunrise, when sentries spotted them marching through the heavy snowfall. Pressing onward, Washington rode in front of his advancing troops. Knox's cannons blasted the jagers pouring like a mob onto the streets, while a bullet cut down their commander, Colonel Johann Rall. After an hour of fighting, the Battle of Trenton left the Hessians with 22 dead and 98 wounded. By comparison, only six Americans suffered combat wounds – one of whom was Lieutenant James Monroe of Virginia. Although hundreds of Hessians slipped away, over 1,000 became prisoners of war.

Upon receiving reports of the Hessian rout, Howe sent General Lord Charles Cornwallis to regain the initiative in New Jersey. On January 2, Cornwallis rallied British forces near Assunpink Creek. Knox, whom Congress promoted to general, directed cannonades to keep them off balance. Leaving campfires burning as a decoy, Washington avoided a trap by advancing to Princeton the next morning. He mixed sound judgment in the field with a sudden flash of daring. Thanks to quick marching in adverse conditions, Americans claimed another victory in the Battle of Princeton. With British losses numbering in the hundreds, American figures amounted to 25 killed and 40 wounded. Afterward, Washington's command moved to the Watchung Mountains and quartered in Morristown for the rest of the winter.

Year of the Hangman

For the Continental Army, surviving the onslaught of the British military represented a remarkable achievement. Although London bestowed a knighthood upon Howe, the most powerful empire in the world underestimated the opposition in North America. On the heels of the winter victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington rallied troops to his command in the spring. They grew to 9,000 effectives along with countless irregulars. Taken aback by American tenacity in early 1777, British forces withdrew from New Jersey altogether.

British authorities referred to 1777 as the “year of the hangman,” because the three sevens symbolized the gallows from which rebels would swing. Accordingly, flamboyant General Johnny Burgoyne laid out a plan of attack in upper New York. He proposed separating New England from the other colonies by driving southward along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. With Lord Germain's approval, he organized an expeditionary force of 8,300 that included regulars, militia, loyalists, Germans, and Indians. Likewise, Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger prepared to maneuver down the Mohawk River and junction with him at Albany. Though not stipulated in the plan, he hoped that an advance northward from New York City by Howe would cut off the enemy retreat.

Instead of moving directly to Albany for a junction with Burgoyne, Howe sought a rematch with Washington elsewhere. He preferred transporting his troops by water to strike Philadelphia. If Burgoyne reached Albany, then he would reposition them depending on “the state of things at the time.” Ignorant of North American geography and preoccu­pied with other affairs, Lord Germain approved Howe's request to head south before going north.

With Howe operating on his own, Burgoyne drove southward from Quebec. “I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction – and they amount to thousands – to overtake the hardened enemies of Great Britain and America,” he threatened in a blustering proclamation. That summer, his troops quickly captured Fort Ticonderoga. They pressed onward through difficult terrain, while the Continentals of the Northern Department remained in disarray. On July 7, a British advance party clashed with an American rear guard. The Battle of Hubbardton resulted in 132 American casualties in a two-hour fight. A week later, the redcoats took Skenesboro. With their confidence soaring, the loyalists in New York cheered the accomplishments of “Gentleman Johnny.”

As Burgoyne approached Fort Edward, Jane McCrea unexpectedly altered the course of the campaign. A party of Indian scouts found her hiding in a cellar on July 27. Because she was engaged to a loyalist in Burgoyne's army, they began quarrelling over the ostensible reward. One of them, a Wyandot named Panther, reportedly shot her and scalped her. Then he stripped her clothes and mutilated her body. Word of the assault outraged many of the locals, as the death of an innocent female produced an unexpected effect. Many indicted British commanders for offering scalp bounties, which soon aroused militiamen. The story spread like wildfire, including embellishments about her “clustering curls of soft blonde hair.” Blaming the incident on “savage passion,” Burgoyne demanded that the killer surrender for a trial. Instead of submitting to British law, scores of Indian scouts abandoned the campaign.

British forces paused before reaching the Hudson, while Continental units tried to regroup in Albany. Congress replaced Schuyler in the Northern Department with Gates, an ex-officer of the Royal Army. With gray hair and thick spectacles, the 50-year-old acquired the nickname “Granny.” The wily commander composed a public letter to Burgoyne that scolded the British for “the miserable fate of Miss McCrea.”

Suffering from shortages of supplies, the British dispatched foraging expeditions into the countryside. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum of the Brunswick dragoons directed a detachment to seize cattle, horses, saddles, bridles, carriages, and hostages. A New Hampshire brigade under General John Stark intercepted them outside Bennington, a town near the Walloomsac River. His lead column carried a flag with 13 stripes and a large “76” in the center. “There are the redcoats, and they are ours,” bellowed the veteran of Rogers' Rangers, “or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight.” On August 16, he hit them with a pincer movement in the Battle of Bennington. What began with intricate maneuvering turned into desperate hand-to-hand combat. Stark, who lost 30 killed and 40 wounded, returned home in triumph after mauling Baum's detachment.

At the same time, Continentals and militiamen at Fort Stanwix faced St. Leger's column in the Mohawk Valley. Commencing on August 6, the Battle of Oriskany cost the Americans approximately 450 casualties. However, weeks of ambushes and sorties left the loyalists and the Indians disheartened by their losses. After Congress promoted him to general, Arnold attempted to save his counterparts with a hoax. He sent a captured shaman to warn St. Leger's Indian allies that a mighty force of patriots was coming. Whether or not they believed his ravings, the scouts vanished in the woods. St. Leger withdrew to Oswego, where his units boarded boats for Quebec. By September, Arnold had secured Fort Stanwix and returned to the Hudson Valley.

Disengaged from the military action in the Hudson Valley, Howe loaded some 18,000 men on board ships and sailed for Chesapeake Bay. In late August, they went ashore at the Elk River in Maryland. As they marched toward Philadelphia, Washington established a defensive line on the eastern side of Brandywine Creek.

On September 11, the Battle of Brandywine pitted 11,000 Americans against 12,500 British and Hessian troops. Howe demonstrated at Chadds Ford while outflanking Washington on the left with a wide turning maneuver. Fighting ensued around Meeting House Hill, but the Continentals and the militiamen withdrew by nightfall. The Marquis de Lafayette, a young French aristocrat serving under Washington, helped to conduct an orderly retreat. The Americans lost over 200 killed, 500 wounded, and 400 captured in defeat, although Washington still blocked Howe's path to Philadelphia.

Around Philadelphia, the two sides marched and countermarched through creeks and rivers. At 1:00 a.m. on September 21, British General Charles Grey surprised a slumbering Continental detachment commanded by General Anthony Wayne near the Paoli Tavern. Carrying out a bayonet assault at night, Grey's men removed the flints from their muskets to maintain noise discipline. Many of Wayne's men never left their blankets. More than 200 Continentals died in the “Paoli Massacre,” while another 100 received wounds.

Washington repositioned the Continentals along the Schuylkill River, but Howe crossed at Flatland Ford to reach Philadelphia. Congress fled to York, Pennsylvania, before the British marched to the Pennsylvania State House. South of Philadelphia, Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer on the Delaware remained in American hands until November.

Five miles northwest of Philadelphia, Washington planned a counterstroke against Howe at Germantown. “Will you resign your parents, wives, children, and friends to be the wretched vassals of a proud, insulting foe?” he asked his anxious troops. He pressed the question further: “And your neck to the halter?” He organized four columns for a dawn attack on October 4. General John Sullivan led the main thrust into the town, although a dense fog frustrated the synchronization of their movements. Dazed and confused, some fired on each other. Nevertheless, they drove the redcoats through the streets before eventually retreating. Several British companies made a valiant stand at the Chew House.

As the fog lifted, Howe claimed another victory in the Battle of Germantown. The Continentals lost 152 killed, 500 wounded, and 438 captured while inflicting 550 casualties on their adversaries. Afterward, Washington's command huddled in the Pennsylvania countryside to plan the next move.

Meanwhile, Burgoyne crawled along the Hudson River. Without the “eyes” of Indian scouts, he reached the west bank town of Saratoga by mid-September. South of town, Gates positioned 7,000 Continentals and militiamen on Bemis Heights. Thanks to Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer, the Americans erected three-sided breastworks of earth and logs that blocked the British path to Albany. On the left wing, Arnold urged Gates to order a reconnaissance in force before Burgoyne potentially seized the high ground to the west.

On September 19, the Battle of Saratoga began near a clearing in the woods called Freeman's Farm. That afternoon, a corps of 400 riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan fired several volleys that cut down the British lines. His sharpshooters worked their long-barreled, rifled weapons, which reputedly hit a target the size of a man's head at 250 yards. Communicating with turkey calls, they surged back and forth across the open space. With a passion for combat, Arnold led several charges from the southern fringe. The British retained the field but absorbed more casualties by dusk.

Burgoyne awaited relief from a diversionary attack by General Henry Clinton, Howe's subordinate in New York. Irrespective of British maneuvering, Gates not only remained a mile and a half away on Bemis Heights but also increased his forces to 11,000 men. Isolated at the river's edge, the redcoats faced daily sniping and harassment from patrols.

On October 7, the opposing forces renewed the Battle of Saratoga. Ignoring the counsel of his senior officers, Burgoyne probed the left flank of the defensive line. Gates relieved Arnold from command after a dispute but ordered other officers “to begin the game.” After mid-day, the Continentals hit the British at a wheat field near Freeman's Farm. Riding his mount between enemy redoubts, Arnold defied his commander by entering the fray. He shouted “victory or death” in the reckless assaults, although a bullet broke his thighbone. Commanding from the safety of Bemis Heights, Gates directed troops to hold the forward positions “at all hazards.” As heavy rains began to fall, Burgoyne retreated to Saratoga.

Finally, Burgoyne asked Gates for terms. On October 17, the former ordered his 5,800 men to surrender their arms. American losses totaled 90 dead and 240 wounded, while British casualties exceeded 1,000. Rather than seeing rebels swing from the gallows before winter, “Gentleman Johnny” raised his hat, bowed, and spoke humbly in the Saratoga Convention: “The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner.”

The Alliance

As another winter approached, the Continentals grew discontented. American officers groused about the mismanagement of military affairs by Congress, especially in regard to the commissary and quartermaster systems. Senior staff approached Washington with a proposal for pensions and an order of knighthood, but the commander-in-chief doubted the feasibility.

With relations already testy, congressional support for Washington wavered over the winter. In the aftermath of the Saratoga victory, Gates violated his chain of command by corresponding directly with delegates. They created a Board of War to monitor the armed forces and appointed him president. Moreover, they elevated an Irish-born Frenchman named Thomas Conway to the post of inspector general. “Heaven has been determined to save your country, or a weak general and bad counselors would have ruined it,” remarked Conway in a letter to Gates.

Once the “Conway Cabal” came to his attention, Washington suspected a scheme to supplant him as commander-in-chief. He wrote to Congress, complaining that Conway's appointment “will give a fatal blow to the existence of the Army.” He sent a curt note to Gates, who denied knowledge of any conspiracy but stepped down from the Board of War. Conway resigned his commission and received a jaw wound in a duel with an American officer. After writing a letter of apology, the soldier of fortune returned to Europe.

Already fatigued from strenuous campaigning, long marches, and incessant backbiting, Washington camped with his soldiers at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. The high ground of Mount Joy and Mount Misery combined with the Schuylkill River to make the military camp defensible from an attack. The area, however, offered little forage. Leaving a trail of bloody footprints in the snow, the ragtag troops suffered from insufficient food, clothing, and shelter. Most lived on a diet of “fire cakes” – flour mixed with water and baked in the coals or over a fire. Even the most steadfast reached a breaking point while chanting: “No bread, no soldier!” Thousands deserted or perished that winter.

On February 23, 1778, Washington welcomed the arrival of a former Prussian officer, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Never holding a rank higher than captain in Europe, he exaggerated his prior service under Frederick the Great. He attempted to “Europeanize” the enlisted personnel through drills and exercises in the valley. With a fondness for profanity, he demanded obedience, set high standards, and saved regiments from dissolution. Since Americans lacked handbooks for military conduct, he composedRegulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (1779).

Meanwhile, Congress looked to the French government for assistance. Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee received instructions to press “for the immediate and explicit declaration of France in our favor, upon a suggestion that a reunion with Great Britain may be the consequence of delay.” King Louis XVI sent secret aid in the form of munitions and money, while Spain, a French ally, also donated provisions. Congress wanted an “alliance” not in the sense of a political union but in the form of military and commercial relations.

Negotiations with France proceeded slowly until Charles Gravier de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, learned of the American victory at Saratoga. France wanted not only to settle old scores against Great Britain but also to alter the balance of power in Europe. Franklin drafted a proposal for a Franco-American alliance, which resulted in the signing of two treaties in Paris on February 6, 1778. Pledging mutual trade, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and France conferred international recognition upon the former. In addition, the Treaty of Alliance envisaged combined military efforts if the French went to war against the British. A few months later, Congress ratified the treaties with France.

That summer, France and Great Britain broke off diplomatic relations and confronted each other on the high seas. Spain and Holland soon challenged the Royal Navy as well, though not as American allies. Military operations spread to the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and the West Indies. The fighting overseas drained London's resources, deepened the government's debt, and threatened their colonial possessions. While reluctant to withdraw troops from North America, Prime Minister Lord Frederick North considered reconciliation. Plenipotentiaries led by the Earl of Carlisle offered to negotiate with Congress, but the delegates refused to retract the Declaration of Independence.

Committed to independence, Washington persevered through the highs and the lows. He sent 2,200 Continentals under Lafayette to reconnoiter near Barren Hill, only 11 miles west of Philadelphia. On May 20, 1778, they bypassed 5,000 redcoats while maneu­vering and skirmishing. Howe sailed for Great Britain a few days later, when Clinton took command of the Royal Army. Evacuating Philadelphia, he marched 10,000 soldiers eastward across New Jersey toward New York City. His supply train sprawled for a dozen miles along the road.

While sending a detachment under Arnold to secure Philadelphia, Washington chased Clinton with 10,000 Continentals. Lafayette and Steuben urged him to strike a vulnerable enemy on the move. Recently released from British captivity, Lee recommended that he avoid the risk of an engagement. Washington gave him command of the vanguard in New Jersey, ordering an attack near Monmouth Court House. At dawn on June 28, Lee hit the rear and left flank of Clinton. His attack seemed confused and halfhearted, which raised doubts about his devotion to the American side. Whatever his intention, he signaled a full retreat as soon as the British began firing. With 5,000 Continentals in flight, he reformed them on a ridge fronted by a morass.

Temperatures soared to 100 degrees, as Washington rode to the ridge. He demanded that Lee explain the disposition of his troops. After a heated exchange about further engagement, the commander-in-chief swore: “Sir, they are able and, by God, they shall do it!” The British launched a series of headlong charges against the high ground, where the Continentals stood firm. The fighting featured artillery, while the opposing forces maneuvered with speed and precision under thick gunfire. By sunset, Clinton ordered his troops to pull back to a ravine. For the Americans, the Battle of Monmouth resulted in 106 killed, 161 wounded, and 95 missing in action. British forces resumed their march eastward, which allowed Washington to claim victory. Later, Lee was court-martialed and resigned from service in the Continental Army.

The Continentals proceeded across the Hudson to White Plains, while French Admiral Charles Hector Théodat Count d'Estaing arrived with a dozen ships near Sandy Hook. Raiding and foraging punctuated land-based operations for the rest of the year, thereby containing the British within New York City and Newport. Eventually, they evacuated the latter to reinforce the former. While disappointed that d'Estaing decided to sail for the West Indies, Washington's command quartered at Middlebrook that winter.

Even though the French barely challenged the blockade of the Atlantic seaboard, the Americans sustained a “cruising war” against the Royal Navy. Congress and the states commissioned more than 2,000 privateers, whose captains carried letters of marque and reprisal to collect prizes for capturing vessels. According to British records, they seized thousands of merchant ships at sea. Avoiding warships, Thomas Truxtun commanded the privateers Independence, Mars, and St. James on several excursions. However, many found that their acts of piracy landed them in British prisons. With maritime commerce in the doldrums, the lure of booty induced more than 11,000 Americans to serve on board privateers.

Although fewer Americans served in the Continental Navy, the men-of-war captured 196 ships flying the enemy flag. Captain Gustavus Conyngham commanded the Charming Peggy, the Surprise, and the Revenge, even circumnavigating the British Isles while taking prizes. Once opened to allied ships, the French ports invited the Continentals to strike their prey closer to British shores.

No Continental achieved greater acclaim on the high seas than Captain John Paul Jones, who famously preyed upon British commerce aboard the Ranger. During 1778, he captured seven British ships and raided the English harbor of Whitehaven. In Quiberon Bay, he earned the distinction of commanding the first armed vessel flying the American flag to receive a foreign salute. The French also provided the courageous captain with the Duc de Duras, which he refitted and renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin. On September 23, 1779, the Bonhomme Richard confronted a British frigate, H.M.S. Serapis, in a memorable clash. Asked by his opponent to surrender, Jones reportedly barked: “I have not yet begun to fight!” He captured the prize, although his own warship sank two days later.

Figure 2.3 Jean-Michel Moreau, John Paul Jones, 1781. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Despite the heroic efforts of seamen, the Royal Navy continued to rule the oceans. While arms, ammunition, and supplies began trickling into North America, the French fleet focused upon the sugar islands of Grenada, St. Vincent, and Dominica. The Franco-American alliance widened the war without compelling the British to end it.

Outside the Lines

Continental soldiers and sailors fought long and hard for home rule, but they depended upon civilians to maintain their resilience. Though Congress returned to Philadelphia in 1778, delegates resigned all too often or skipped controversial votes. With rampant inflation spiraling out of control and paper currency plunging in value, the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered American discourse. Financial turmoil disrupted the flow of goods throughout the country. Patriots as well as loyalists grew war weary.

The war effort elevated the status of “respectable ladies” on the home front. Women organized volunteer aid societies to manage fundraising drives for veterans and widows. Many wrote letters, penned essays, collected scrap, and knitted stockings. Scores managed farms, plantations, and shops in the absence of fathers and husbands. Others engaged in the production of homespun textiles through piece work, while a few toiled in the munitions industry. Borrowing from an Irish folk tune, an anonymous songwriter composed a sorrowful lyric to note her wartime sacrifices: “I'll sell my rod / I'll sell my reel / Likewise, I'll sell my spinning wheel / And buy my love a sword of steel / Johnny has gone for a soldier.” Hence, the prolonged struggle broke down social barriers that insulated females from military affairs.

In highly visible ways, women joined the armed forces as camp followers. In total, approximately 20,000 traveled with the Continental Army during wartime. Accompanying spouses, lovers, and relatives, they performed essential tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundering, nursing, and entertaining. Mary Ludwig Hays, who was also known as Molly Pitcher, took her husband's place sponging, loading, and firing an artillery field-piece. Prostitutes plied their trade around encampments, although the “Yankees” seldom possessed enough money to pay for sex. Some drifted from camp to camp in pursuit of income or happiness. A number served as spies, scouts, and couriers. Even if they appeared destitute, women on the official rosters usually received half-rations in return for their service.

Several accounts tell of women wearing uniforms while passing as men. Deborah Sampson, for instance, enlisted on May 20, 1782, in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment under the alias Robert Shurtliff. However, she was discharged from service the next year. Without medical examinations for enlistment, cross-dressing permitted deception about gender identification from time to time.

Enlistment shortages necessitated the alteration of the force composition. Alarmed by waning manpower over the years, Congress turned the Continentals into a standing army for hire. The delegates increased the bounties, bonuses, pay, and benefits to entice volunteers, eventually promising those who would serve for the war's duration at least 100 acres of land. Recruiters frequently targeted a landless pool that included transients, immigrants, debtors, laborers, and servants. United by their poverty, the “lower sort” bonded with others willing and able to show deference toward line officers. Service in the armed forces opened a path for upward mobility or outright freedom, that is, if independence was won.

Attracted by the opportunity to earn a livelihood, the number of free blacks among the rank and file increased. About 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army, although as many as 50,000 former slaves fled to British lines. Aside from Georgia and South Carolina, state governments usually permitted chattel to make their mark. Most served with mixed companies, while a few volunteered for segregated regiments such as the “Bucks of America.” Jehu Grant, a black soldier from Rhode Island, recalled hearing “those songs of liberty that saluted my ears and thrilled through my heart.”

Instead of liberty, the American Revolution brought disease, hunger, dislocation, and division to many Indian nations. American settlers in the backcountry threatened indigenous communities, although most chiefs professed neutrality. Nevertheless, British officers increased their practice of doling out gifts to tribal leaders to a much greater extent than Congress could afford. Led by the Mohawk Joseph Brant, the six nations of the Iroquois raided scattered settlements in Pennsylvania and in New York throughout 1778.

The next year, Congress ordered a military “chastisement” of the Iroquois. General Sullivan marched 2,500 Continentals westward along with 1,500 New York militia under General James Clinton. The Sullivan–Clinton expedition that summer destroyed villages and crops in the valleys. Armed by the British, Iroquois raiding parties retaliated against the American settlements the following season. The cycle of violence continued unabated, which devastated Indian people from the Chemung River to Seneca Lake.

Elsewhere, the Virginians claimed the homelands of Indian people as far west as the Mississippi River. A 26-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia named George Rogers Clark vowed to secure the remote territory in 1778. He led 175 volunteers down the Ohio River and seized several French-inhabited towns. Eager to fight the British and their Indian allies, they conducted an 18-day trek through icy rivers to reach Fort Sackville in Vincennes.

Clark's men arrived after twilight on February 23, 1779, which became known as the “night of the long knives.” With their faces painted like Indian warriors, they surrounded the garrison at Fort Sackville. They taunted Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hamilton, the British commander, who earned the sobriquet “hair buyer” for his purchases of American scalps. To unnerve the redcoats, Clark tomahawked Indian captives in full view of the commander before tossing them into the river. Shocked and awed, Hamilton agreed to terms of surrender and became a prisoner of war. Although the “long knives” erected Fort Nelson and Fort Jefferson in the interior while waging war on the Indians, the British retained their hold on Fort Detroit.

The British denounced the Americans for their treachery, even if conventional rules of warfare usually governed the treatment of military personnel. American leaders insisted upon the sovereignty of the United States, thereby defining the clash of arms as a war between nations. Their own seditious acts notwithstanding, Congress targeted spies and traitors with strict measures that imposed harsh punishments in wartime.

Few suspected that Arnold – one the most capable officers in the Continental Army – was both a spy and a traitor. While serving as the American commandant in Philadelphia, he forwarded secrets about military activities to Royal officers. Disgruntled about the ineptitude of Congress, he confided to a loyalist that he wanted to terminate the war. Moreover, he married Peggy Shippen in 1779 and found himself short of money. After a court-martial for graft and embezzlement, he requested command of the military stronghold at West Point. He conspired with Major John André, the deputy adjutant general of British forces in New York, to hand it over to Clinton. In exchange, he demanded a commission in the Royal Army as well as immediate remuneration and a lifetime annuity from the Crown.

Before the Royal Army arrived, a party of volunteer militiamen captured André in disguise near the Hudson. They discovered the West Point papers in his boot. Upon hearing about his accomplice's capture on September 25, 1780, Arnold fled to British lines. Eventually, André was hanged as a spy. Arnold's treason fired the animosity of Americans, who condemned him evermore as a turncoat.

Amid the uncertainty and doubt, American enthusiasm for home rule hit rock bottom. Congress crafted the Articles of Confederation for “perpetual union,” but state by state ratification stalled. Civilian authorities could not compel anyone to serve. Voluntary enlistments declined. Desertions and disease plagued the military camps. After suffering in their winter quarters time and again, the Continentals teetered on the brink of mutiny.

Southern Strategy

Frustrated with the recalcitrant rebels in New England, Lord Germain articulated a grand strategy for dividing and conquering the United States. He urged Clinton in a “most secret” letter to concentrate military efforts on the southern states, where numerous loyalists vowed to assist the Royal Army and Navy. From Georgia to Virginia, he called for a series of campaigns to pacify the population. While confiscating plantations to fund ongoing operations, the redcoats would secure the coastal ports for trade with the West Indies. Thus, the British Empire prepared to strike back.

Starting in late 1778, British forces quickly overran Savannah, Georgia. They rolled northward to Charleston, South Carolina, where they bottled up Continentals and militiamen under General Benjamin Lincoln during a prolonged siege. Lincoln surrendered 5,500 troops to the British on May 12, 1780, which constituted the largest American loss of the war.

Owing to the capture of Savannah and Charleston, the British campaign gained significant momentum. Clinton issued a proclamation that offered pardons to Americans in exchange for loyalty oaths. His troops secured a line of strategic bases along the seaboard while training loyalist units for striking inland. He turned command of military operations over to Cornwallis and confidently returned to his headquarters in New York.

Figure 2.4 The Southern Campaigns


Cornwallis inherited a partisan war in the south, which entailed irregular combat between paramilitary bands seeking power. For years, “regulators” or vigilantes operated in the backcountry beyond the purview of Royal government. Likewise, outlaw banditti formed cohesive groups based upon ethnic or social networks. Whether calling themselves Whigs or Tories, militia in the rural communities feuded for generations.

As Tory militia conducted reprisals against their neighbors, the armed citizenry drifted into a civil war. A veteran Indian fighter named Andrew Pickens of South Carolina organized rangers in the countryside despite his loyalty oath. Militia units coalesced under the leadership of Thomas Sumter, an ex-Continental officer known as the “Carolina Gamecock.” Operating in the marshlands between the Pee Dee and Santee Rivers, Francis Marion, another former Continental officer, earned the sobriquet “Swamp Fox.” Although the bayonet and torch dispersed opponents, British actions reinforced enmities that persisted for years.

Cornwallis directed British officers to eliminate the residuals of the American military. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, an Oxford-educated son of a Liverpool merchant, commanded a Tory unit in the backcountry. His green-coated dragoons covered 105 miles in 54 hours while pursuing a Virginia regiment. Tarleton caught his prey at the Waxhaws near the Carolina border. Although they waved a white flag to surrender, he accepted “no quarter” on May 29, 1780. The phrases “Bloody Ban,” “The Butcher,” and “Tarleton's Quarter” fueled patriot propaganda in the southern theater thereafter.

That summer, Congress commissioned Gates to regain control of the southern theater. His Grand Army of 3,052 Continentals and militiamen marched toward Camden, South Carolina. Unfortunately, his troops ate half-cooked meat and molasses mixed with cornmeal mush. After consuming meals not ready to eat, many suffered from diarrhea. About 5 miles north of town, Gates encountered a smaller army under Cornwallis. He positioned Continentals under General Johann DeKalb on the right, North Carolina militia under General Richard Caswell in the center, and Virginia militia under General Edward Stevens on the left. Swamps surrounded his flanks, while nearly 250 yards of open space stretched between him and his foes. Recalling their general's previous success elsewhere, Americans expected to “burgoyne” the British.

American and British forces clashed at dawn on August 16, 1780. Unnerved by the fixed bayonets and loud “huzzahs,” the militiamen ran to the rear and to the swamps. The Royal infantry wheeled and attacked with relentless precision in the gun smoke. The Conti­nentals scrambled from the battlefield in haste. After an hour, the Battle of Camden turned into a rout. Reaching Charlotte, North Carolina, Gates outpaced his men astride a fast horse. Americans lost close to 900 killed and wounded in action, while 1,000 more were captured.

Cornwallis pursued the Americans forthwith, ordering Major Patrick Ferguson to lead a Tory unit across the Carolina border. That fall, Ferguson warned rebels that he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.” Enraged by his taunts, the “over-the-mountain men” gathered at King's Mountain, a level summit along a 16-mile ridge. Without a unified command, they organized under the leadership of folk heroes such as William Campbell, Isaac Shelby, and John Sevier. On October 7, 1780, the Battle of King's Mountain raged for an hour. Ferguson led 1,000 men in a series of desperate charges, while an equal number of angry partisans stood their ground on the wooded slopes. Americans lost 29 dead and 58 wounded while inflicting 407 casualties upon their enemies. They offered “Tarleton's Quarter” to the defeated. After killing Ferguson, they urinated on his mangled corpse. Consequently, the outcome reversed British momentum in the south.

Meanwhile, Congress replaced the humiliated Gates with Washington's quartermaster and confidant, Greene. Though a private in the Rhode Island militia at the start of the war, he took command of the Southern Department in late 1780. Colleagues observed that the “Fighting Quaker” possessed infinite patience. Upon his arrival in Charlotte, he found no more than 1,000 Continentals fit for duty. He steered them southward to Cheraw Hill near the Pee Dee River, where more partisans gathered. “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again,” he resolved.

Greene divided his army, sending the recently promoted General Morgan with the light infantry and cavalry on a backcountry march. The “Old Wagoner” led 600 Continentals and 400 militiamen to Cowpens, a meadow near the Broad River. Tarleton's dragoons took the bait on January 17, 1781, and commenced their attack. In the Battle of Cowpens, the American militia fired their volleys before exiting to the rear. The impetuous Tarleton charged the wavering flank without delay. On cue, Colonel William Washington swung 80 horsemen around his infantry and cavalry. Morgan delivered more volleys from the front, which culminated in a dramatic bayonet charge. He won a stunning victory that day, losing only 25 dead and 124 wounded. The British lines completely disintegrated, as Tarleton fled the battlefield in disgrace.

Cornwallis attempted in vain to trap Morgan along the Catawba River, while Greene maneuvered 4,400 men to Guilford Court House in North Carolina. On March 15, they formed a line at the crest of a rising hill and awaited the advancing enemy. Marching up the Salisbury Road, Cornwallis pressed the attack at noon with only 1,900 men. The American flanks withstood the charges, but Greene soon ordered them to retreat to Troublesome Creek. He lost 78 dead and 183 wounded in the Battle of Guilford Court House. Although the British gained control of the field that day, nearly a quarter of them became casualties. With his ranks depleted and his supplies exhausted, Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington on the North Carolina coast to replenish his army.

With Cornwallis at bay, Greene intensified his military efforts in South Carolina and in Georgia. A mile east of Camden at Hobkirk's Hill, he moved against a British garrison commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lord Francis Rawdon. On April 25, they fought the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, which some called the second Battle of Camden. An American thrust battered the British, but Rawdon's line held. Greene counted 18 dead, 108 wounded, and 136 missing among his troops. Rawdon won a tactical victory, though at a high cost in lives. Unable to muster reinforcements, the British abandoned Camden the next month.

The Continentals and militiamen reduced British outposts one by one. They seized Orangeburg, Fort Motte, and Fort Granby, while Royal officers abandoned Nelson's Ferry and Georgetown. A successful strike on Fort Watson marked the first use of the Maham Tower, which gave riflemen a high platform for delivering fire inside the walls. Next, Colonel Henry “Light Horse” Lee linked with Pickens to capture Fort Grierson and Fort Cornwallis in Augusta, Georgia. Greene targeted a stockade called Ninety-Six, where a siege operation unfolded for weeks. Although the Americans eventually lifted their siege, the ailing Rawdon decided to evacuate Ninety-Six. In effect, the British withdrew nearly all of their forces to Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah.

Just 40 miles from Charleston, Greene drove against a British camp along the Santee River. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart commanded 2,000 regulars and loyalists at Eutaw Springs, where they faced 2,400 Continentals and militiamen. At 9:00 a.m. on September 8, the British tried to break the first line of the American advance. The North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia regiments in the secondary lines reinforced their comrades, which threw the charging infantry into a disorderly retreat. The Americans rushed forward to plunder the camp, but the British repulsed them with a counterattack. The Battle of Eutaw Springs cost Greene 139 lives and another 375 wounded, even as Stewart lost close to two-fifths of his men. Despite claiming a tactical victory, the British retired to Charleston.

Unable to trade space for time, the British lacked a winning strategy in the southern theater. Greene lost battles in the Carolinas, to be sure, but he found ways to liberate the backcountry from Royal authority. His impressive operations blended a partisan war with conventional maneuvers. He stretched the communication and supply lines of his enemy to a breaking point, while he kept American forces intact against all odds.


With the countryside in arms, the British Empire appraised the tidewater of Virginia. The sight of sails and blue water comforted Royal officers, who despised the swamps and rugged terrain of the hinterlands. As early as 1779, an expeditionary force sailed into the Chesapeake Bay for a raid on Portsmouth and Suffolk. Clinton authorized military incursions thereafter, which shifted the war's center of gravity to the Old Dominion.

Clinton dispatched his new brigadier general, Arnold, to occupy Virginia. After reaching Hampton Roads in late 1780, he ascended the James River to Richmond, the state capital. Governor Jefferson fled from Arnold's hit-and-run attack, while Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe directed the Queen's Rangers to destroy the foundry at Westham. After burning Richmond on January 5, 1781, Arnold established a base of operations at Portsmouth. The British planned to remain in Virginia while enjoying the spoils of war.

Though distraught by the news from Virginia, Washington considered New York City the key to North America. He sent Lafayette with 1,200 Continentals southward, where they collaborated with militiamen under General John P. G. Muhlenberg. As the young Frenchman planned to take action against Arnold, he assumed command of all American troops in Virginia.

Discounting American strength, British commanders failed to coordinate their actions in 1781. Clinton reinforced Arnold with 2,000 soldiers under General William Phillips, who took overall command in Virginia. The redcoats ravaged towns along the James River until Lafayette attempted to block them near the Appomattox River. With the blessing of Lord Germain, Cornwallis abandoned North Carolina and marched his troops into Virginia that spring. Because Phillips suddenly died from a fever, Arnold greeted his new superior before retiring to New York. Cornwallis massed close to 7,000 effectives at Petersburg while driving the Continentals and militiamen into flight. In the sweltering heat of the summer, Clinton directed him to fortify a naval base along the Chesapeake Bay and to await further orders.

Cornwallis chose the port of Yorktown, which sat on a low plateau overlooking the York River. His troops began constructing trenches, redoubts, and batteries near the marshes. They established a post at Gloucester on the opposite bank. With British dispositions on both sides of the half-mile-wide river, the campaign in Virginia came to a standstill.

Lafayette's force in Virginia expanded to 4,565 men, but he informed Washington that “the war in this country is becoming a war of depredation.” Weighing his next move, the commander-in-chief conferred with French General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vigneur, Comte de Rochambeau, at Wethersfield, Connecticut. That August, they learned that Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, who operated in the West Indies, had steered a French fleet toward the Virginia Capes. On September 5, his warships clashed with a Royal fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves. Even though the naval battle amounted to a draw, the French cut off exterior supply and escape routes in the Chesapeake.

While the French commanded the bay, Washington and Rochambeau joined Lafayette in Williamsburg, Virginia. On September 28, their columns advanced to the edge of Yorktown. Their combined forces swelled to 8,845 Continentals, 3,000 militiamen, and 7,800 French, whereas the British under siege numbered 9,725. Allied sappers and miners commenced digging entrenchments in parallel lines to enemy earthworks. Amid the deep ravines and pine trees, engineers built redoubts, parapets, and depots. For weeks, troopers dragged cannons down the road and from the James for emplacement in the Pigeon Quarter. The artillery batteries commenced firing a steady barrage of more than 15,000 rounds. Their superior positions afforded direct fire, in which the gunners visually located exposed targets before launching their deadly projectiles. With the completion of a second parallel, the infantry stood in trenches less than 300 yards from the main British line.

“Our watchword was Rochambeau,” recalled Sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut on October 14. That night, he crept beyond the trenches as a member of an American detachment led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. They awaited a signal to storm redoubt 10, while the French moved into position to swarm redoubt 9. Upon observing three shells with fiery trains passing overhead, they launched a concerted attack.

In the darkness, the British troops opened fire on them with sharp musketry. Martin heard the watchword shouted quickly in the noise, which sounded like “rush-on-boys!” As he plunged through a hole in the abatis, a comrade “received a ball in his head and fell under my feet, crying out bitterly.” Undaunted, he danced past exploding grenades and mounted the enemy breastwork. By sunrise, the Americans and the French controlled the redoubts.

After losing the redoubts, the Royal Army received a pounding at close range. Their food and ammunition neared exhaustion. Furthermore, outbreaks of smallpox and dysentery rendered many unfit for duty. “The safety of the place is so precarious,” Cornwallis wrote Clinton in despair, “I cannot recommend that the fleet and army should run great risk in endeavoring to save us.” He attempted to ferry troops across the river to Gloucester on the night of October 16, but a squall with high winds drove them back.

Cornwallis asked for terms the next day, when the Battle of Yorktown climaxed. American losses amounted to 70 killed and 55 wounded, whereas British casualties reached 552. After capitulation, another 7,241 became prisoners of war. Standing inside redoubt 10, Washington ordered an aide to notarize the final draft of the surrender document: “Done in the trenches before Yorktown in Virginia, October 19, 1781.” The redcoats marched down the road to a meadow, where they piled their muskets. The regimental bands played songs that afternoon, including one called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

A Standing Miracle

At the beginning of 1782, His Majesty's forces held New York City and Charleston as well as a few scattered outposts in North America. Nevertheless, London yearned for peace. Taxes rose even higher in support of the costly armed conflict. British voters expressed disenchantment with the war effort, because their expenditure of blood and treasure failed to overwhelm the American military.

That spring, the British ministry under Lord North collapsed. King George III con­templated abdication. Following the resignation of the cabinet, Lord Charles Watson-Wentworth Rockingham organized a new administration. He selected Lord William Petty Shelburne to succeed Lord Germain in the handling of the American colonies. After Lord Rockingham's sudden death, Lord Shelburne took control of the ministry. London seemed open to talks with the Americans but refused to recognize the existence of Congress.

Seeking mediation by Russia and Austria, Congress formed a peace commission to discuss terms. The delegates appointed Franklin and Adams in addition to a New York attorney named John Jay. They traveled to Paris, but the Franco-American alliance undermined their overtures. Because the French pledged to help the Spanish recover Gibraltar from Great Britain, the Americans feared that their allies intended to secretly swap “the rock” for lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Playing an artful game, Franklin and Jay ignored congressional directives for them to consult Vergennes. On November 30, 1782, they signed a preliminary treaty with Great Britain that acknowledged the independence of the United States. Their parleys stimulated France and Spain to make deals with their adversary early the next year, thereby conferring legitimacy on what the commissioners in Paris wrought. After London proclaimed an end to hostilities, Congress did the same on April 11, 1783.

Ending the hostilities did not arrest the dissension within the American military. Before the Treaty of Paris received approval, Washington redeployed the Continentals from Yorktown to New York. From his headquarters in Newburgh along the Hudson, he kept a vigilant eye on enemies inside and outside the lines. Regiments camped in the hills of New Windsor, where grievances festered. The rank and file worried about back pay and land bounties, while officers awaited news about promised pensions. Rumors circulated among the troops about a military coup d'état, which possibly involved members of the high com­mand. A cadre conspired to make Washington a dictator or a king, but he rebuked them.

Washington outlined a “peace establishment” not only to face external threats but also to prevent internal uprisings. “It may be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system,” he posited, “that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property but even his personal services to the defense of it.” In addition to establishing regular units, he recommended that all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 50 train for active duty in the militia. Congress disregarded his plan for “standing armies in time of peace,” instead slashing the number of military personnel on the rolls as quickly as possible.

Military personnel grumbled about the scheduling of indefinite furloughs, which insinuated a ploy to deny them overdue compensation. With drums and bayonets, hundreds of citizen soldiers marched outside the Pennsylvania State House on June 21, 1783. Congress appealed directly to the commander-in-chief, who decided to send Continentals under General Robert Howe from West Point to Philadelphia. Until the crisis abated, the dele­gates met in Princeton and in Annapolis. Several mutineers faced court-martials and death sentences, but Congress eventually pardoned them.

While Congress disbanded the armed forces, veterans retained their muskets, ammunition, and clothing. The delegates turned the officers' pensions into a severance payment equal to five years of full salary. They issued final settlement certificates to service members and later issued land warrant certificates, which became a form of fiat currency. Congress persisted as a national institution, but the Continental Army and Navy ceased to exist.

Congress finalized the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on September 3, 1783. The first article announced British recognition of the “free sovereign and independent states.” Moreover, provisions extended American control of territory westward to the Mississippi River. Although ambiguities about the northern and southern borders remained, Americans gained concessions regarding fishing rights off Newfoundland, on the St. Lawrence River, and along the Atlantic coastline of Canada. However vague and slippery, clauses about pre-war debts and loyalist property assuaged London. The Royal Army and Navy deplored the writ but began their final withdrawal from the United States “with all convenient speed.” Diplomats formally exchanged ratifications the following year, when America's “birth certificate” became official.

On November 2, 1783, Washington issued farewell orders to “the Armies of the United States of America.” Eager to return to Mount Vernon for the winter, he hoped to calm the restless and footloose men in uniform. His words reinforced the notion of civilian authority over the military, even calling the war's outcome “little short of a standing miracle.”

Crossing the Hudson a month later, the commander-in-chief met Congress in Annap­olis for the last time. He bowed to the delegates and announced his retirement from “the great theater of action.” His gestures and cadence insinuated a passion for the plays of the European Enlightenment. Surrendering his commission to “this august body,” he chose to exit the stage with honor.

America possessed no chivalric or noble orders, although many ex-Continental officers joined the Society of the Cincinnati after the war ended. While Knox organized the exclusive fraternal organization, the charter made membership hereditary. Their contributions established a charity fund for veterans struggling in civilian life. Considered the embodiment of the revolution, Washington served as their first president general.


Washington won the long war by remaining fixed upon his military objective – American independence. Because the rebellion initially erupted in New England, he organized the Continental Army near Boston in 1775. He experienced several tactical defeats at the hands of opposing officers, who outmaneuvered him in New York and in Pennsylvania. His overall strategy, however, kept the armed forces intact while wearing down the resolve of Great Britain. Conversely, British commanders captured cities along the coast but lost control of the countryside. Furthermore, the Franco-American alliance forced the empire to employ resources and manpower in other theaters. The British shift toward a southern strategy temporarily restored some Royal governments, although the tenacity of the Americans prevented the Crown from making sustainable gains. With the surrender of an army at Yorktown, London decided to negotiate a peaceful settlement. In the end, Washington shocked the world by deferring to Congress and by reinforcing the principle of civilian authority over the military.

Like a number of his fellow Americans, Washington saw more death and deprivation during the revolution than he ever imagined possible. Out of a total population of 3.5 million, more than 200,000 volunteered for active service. The participation ratio in wartime amounted to less than 6 percent, even if countless noncombatants sacrificed as well. Though estimates varied, fatalities among soldiers and sailors reached as high as 25,674. While 7,174 were killed in action, at least 10,000 perished from diseases in camp. Approximately 8,500 died as prisoners of war, while over 1,000 went missing. Another 8,241 received wounds in battle yet survived. Because the Continentals performed most of the combat missions, as many as one-third became casualties. Scores of veterans felt neglected and abandoned in peacetime but nonetheless saluted the republican model of the legendary Cincinnatus.

The republican model shaped the force structure of the American military, which Congress largely dismantled before 1787. Commemorating the service of an armed citizenry, patriotic leaders recalled that standing forces represented a grave danger to liberty. They reviled the Royal Army and Navy as instruments of tyranny, while American warriors defended their homes as both citizens and soldiers. Troops hailed from diverse communities across North America, where they eschewed the kind of social stratification that pervaded the Atlantic world at the time. Their ranks included affluent merchants and planters as well as bedraggled immigrants and slaves. Remarkably, the Continentals operated under a unified command that transformed an inter-colonial militia into an interstate army and navy. Even though European assistance proved indispensable, the United States won independence from Great Britain by managing volunteer forces for a long war.

The War for Independence inspired a Massachusetts militiaman and playwright named Royall Tyler to author The Contrast (1787), the first theatrical production of the United States. The comedy satirized the essential differences between the American and British “constitutions.” On stage, a veteran named Colonel Henry Manly wears his uniform but appears unfashionable to high society. He finds himself at odds with Billy Dimple, an Anglophile fop driven to acquire wealth through dishonesty. The two characters compete to win the affections of a beautiful coquette, Maria Van Rough, who seeks asylum in “the arms of a man of honor.” Once Maria's father intervenes in the quarrel, he discovers the virtues of the modest colonel. In the finale, he agrees to Manly's proposal for marriage to Maria. As the curtain fell, an American Cincinnatus in the audience undoubtedly applauded with glee.

Essential Questions

1 What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Continentals at the start of the war?

2 How did civil society exercise control over the armed forces during the revolution?

3 Why did the Royal Army and Navy fail to defeat the American military at Yorktown?

Suggested Readings

Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Cox, Caroline. A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Fleming, Thomas. Liberty! The American Revolution. New York: Viking Press, 1997.

Fowler, William M. Rebels under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution. New York: Scribner, 1976.

Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Hibbert, Christopher. Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution through British Eyes. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Higginbotham, Donald. The War of Independence. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Martin, James Kirby, ed. Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin. St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1993.

Martin, James Kirby, and Mark Edward Lender. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763–1789. 2nd edition. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2006.

Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography. New York: Little, Brown, 1959.

Myers, Minor. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Perret, Geoffrey. A Country Made by War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – the Story of America's Rise to Power. New York: Random House, 1989.

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Ward, Harry M. The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

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