The American Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence, was fought between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its North American colonies. The colonies allied with France from 1775 to 1783.
This war is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the American Revolution; however, the American Revolution began much earlier and refers to more than just the war discussed here. This page refers solely to the military campaign, conducted during the war.
The eventual outcome was a recognition of independence for the thirteen colonies, as well as western territories, extending to the Mississippi River.
It should be noted however that a large proportion of the population did stay loyal or at least neutral during the war. Loyalists, known as Tories, included members of the aristocracy who had a lot to lose as well as recent immigrants who identified more with their birthplace than their new home. Both during and following the war some Tories were forced to flee to Canada or Britain.
Many Native Americans also opposed the revolution believing that they were likely to suffer more at the hands of independent Americans than the British. An estimated 10-15% of colonists were Loyalists and about one-third of them left the United States. Some 70,000 Loyalists fled along with 2,000 Native Americans. 50,000 of these Loyalists went to Canada where they helped form the colonies of New Brunswick and Ontario. Some black Loyalists went to Sierra Leone.
Initial success and the British response
The revolution started in April 1775 when British troops quartered in Boston attempted to seize munitions stored by colonial militias at Concord, Massachusetts. Conflict spread and the outnumbered British garrisons in the 13 colonies were quickly defeated. Fort Ticonderoga fell in May, Montreal in August. Boston was evacuated by British troops in October.
By the end of 1775, Britain’s holdings in North America had been reduced to the Canadian Maritimes and a besieged garrison at Quebec City in Canada.
At the Second Continental Congress of May 1775, some of the Delegates were deeply divided on agreeing upon the best way to achieve more freedom from Great Britain. Samuel Adams, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee favored Independence from Great Britain. Others, who are now called the moderate party, favored seeking a compromise with the Mother Country.
One of the moderates wrote the Olive Branch Petition which expressed the colonists’ loyalty to the King and begged him to call a cease-fire until a nonviolent agreement could be reached.
In November of 1775, the colonists found out that George III had dismissed the petition and decided to continue fighting. In 1776, the British sent 75,000 troops to North America to quell the rebellion. The colonists met in Philadelphia in June of 1776 and declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. The colonial army proved no match for the well-armed British and suffered an embarrassing series of defeats in the Battle of Long Island. By the end of 1776, Quebec, New York City, and much of New Jersey were in British hands.
However, during Christmas week, General George Washington, who had retreated into Pennsylvania, crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey and rolled up outlying British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. This established a pattern that held for the rest of the war. The British controlled the territory they occupied with major forces — primarily New York City and Philadelphia. The colonists controlled everything else.
In 1777, a force of 10,000 troops started down from Quebec to cut the colonies in half. Simultaneously the much larger army in New Jersey moved across the Delaware River and took Philadelphia — the colonial capital and the largest city in North America.
However, after retaking Ticonderoga with little trouble, the Northern army suffered a series of serious defeats at Bennington, Fort Stanwix and in two battles near Saratoga. By October the 5,700 survivors found themselves surrounded, outnumbered, and short of supplies in the wilderness 130 miles (210 km) south of Montreal with winter approaching.
American success brings French aid
On October 17th General John Burgoyne surrendered an entire British Army to the colonials. News of the surrender arrived in Paris hard on the heels of news that colonial troops had caused supposedly invincible British regulars to flee in disarray in the early stages of the Battle of Germantown. Convinced by Benjamin Franklin and the news from North America that the Colonials had a reasonable chance of victory, the French agreed to support the colonists.
Later on February 6, 1778, the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce were signed by the United States and France signaling official recognition of the new republic. Then on July 10 of the same year, Louis XVI of France declared war on the side of the Americans against the Kingdom of Great Britain.
With the French in the war, the conflict settled into a war of attrition. The Colonials were too weak to dislodge the British from Philadelphia and New York. The British tried various strategies but were unable to establish permanent control over the countryside and the vast majority of the population. The economy of the colonies slowly disintegrated and the British economy — drained by the costs of a war with France and supporting the large occupation forces in America — also suffered substantially.
End of the War
In 1781, the British strategy changed to focus on the southern colonies. General Cornwallis led a force of 7,000 troops whose mission was to support loyalists in the South. He was opposed by Nathaniel Greene who despite losing every battle, was able to demoralize Cornwallis’s troops. Running low on supplies, Cornwallis moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia to await supplies and reinforcements.
Spain entered the war in 1779, and in May of 1781 Spanish forces took Pensacola and with it control of the small British colony of East Florida. This was the largest battle ever fought in Florida.
Accounts of what happened next are remarkably diverse — possibly due to a desire by some American authors to minimize the French role in the events. All sources agree that French naval forces defeated the British Royal Navy on September 5th at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis’s supplies and transport.
Washington moved his troops from New York and a combined Colonial-French force, led by Lafayette and Washington, of 16,000 or 17,000 troops was assembled and commenced the Battle of Yorktown on October 6, 1781. Cornwallis’s position quickly became untenable. On October 19th, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington; as the substantial British force marched out and turned their weapons over, the British regimental band was instructed to play a popular song of the day entitled “The World Turned Upside Down”.
In April 1782, the British House of Commons voted to end the war with the American colonies, and the government of war proponent Lord North was ousted. The British removed their troops from Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia in the summer of 1782. On November 30, 1782, preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris and on February 4, 1783 Great Britain formally declared that it would cease hostilities in North America.
However, the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and the United States Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783.