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Digital History ID 3219


One percent of the American population died during the American Revolution. If the United States were to lose one percent of its population today, the toll would be two-and-a-half million dead.

In recent years, there has been a tendency to downplay the teaching of military history-- perhaps in the hope that if we don't teach about war, it will go away. But military history is enormously important. Wars are among the most important turning points in history.

At several points in the Revolution, it seemed likely that the American patriots would lose the war. In the fall and winter of 1776, Washington's army nearly collapsed. Soldiers' terms of enlistment were set to expire at the end of the year. But on Christmas Eve, Washington's troops crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and defeated the British forces at Trenton and Princeton, and restored a sense of optimism.

At the beginning of 1781, Washington had just 5,000 troops at his command and British forces were ravaging the Virginia countryside. Many slaves, including some owned by Thomas Jefferson, fled behind British lines. But the French navy isolated a British army under Charles, Lord Cornwallis, at Yorktown, and forced a British surrender.

The British Strategy

The initial British goal was to contain revolutionary sentiment to Massachusetts. But the British redcoats suffered horrendous casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill outside of Boston in July 1775, where 47 percent of the British redcoats were killed or wounded. In January, 1776, cannons that the patriots had captured at Fort Ticonderoga, a British post at the southern end of Lake Champlain in New York, reached Boston. The cannons enabled the patriots to fortify the high grounds south of the city. Recognizing that they could no longer hold the city, the British evacuated Boston and sailed to Canada.

The new British strategy was to capture New York, where many Loyalists lived, and use it as a base to conquer the middle colonies. In 1776, the British launched the largest sea and land offensive before the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, and nearly trapped Washington's army in Brooklyn. Washington's forces retreated through New Jersey into Pennsylvania.

Washington had only 6,000 troops whose terms of enlistment were set to expire in January 1777. But on Christmas Eve, 2,400 of his soldiers crossed the icy Delaware River and attacked British outposts in New Jersey. At Trenton, where German mercenaries were groggy from their Christmas celebration, Washington's troops captured 1,000 Hessians. Then they defeated British forces at Princeton, leading the British to redeploy their troops close to New York City, leaving the region's Loyalists at the mercy of the patriots.

In 1777, the British launched another offensive, designed to split New England off from the rest of the colonies. While one British army marched south from Montreal, another was to march northward from New York City. The northern army was defeated at the battle of Saratoga, 30 miles north of Albany, N.Y., and 5,000 British soldiers surrendered.

The Battle of Saratoga was a crucial military turning point. The American victory over General Burgoyne's army convinced the French to publicly support the patriot cause. The French loaned money to the revolutionary government and provided crucial military support. French control of the seas was instrumental in securing an American victory in the Revolution.

The other British army, instead of marching northward, decided to seize Philadelphia, and crush Washington's army, which was defending the patriot's capital. Some 15,000 British soldiers sailed into Chesapeake Bay and marched northward. Even though the British defeated a Continental army at Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, and then seized Philadelphia, this proved to be an empty victory.

The character of the war was totally transformed as France (in 1778), Spain (in 1779), and the Netherlands (in 1780) entered the war on the American side. No longer could Britain concentrate its forces in the mainland colonies; it also had to disperse its troops protect its possessions in the West Indies and the island of Gibraltar.

In a final bid to defeat the colonists, Britain launched an invasion of the South. British forces sailed south from New York City in November 1780 and quickly reconquered Georgia. Their next goal was to retake South Carolina. In May 1780, the British defeated outnumbered American forces at Charleston, S.C. The British then moved to secure all of South Carolina and push into North Carolina.

The year 1780 represented one of the lowest points in the patriot cause. In July, Continental army officers, angry about overdue wages and inadequate supplies, threatened to resign. In September, American General Benedict Arnold, the hero of the battle of Saratoga, attempted to exchange the American military base at West Point for a commission in the British army. His scheme failed, but Arnold became a commander of British forces conducting raids in Virginia. In August, British redcoats overwhelmed an American force near Camden, S.C. By the end of the year, the Continental army had fewer than 6000 troops.

But the tide of war was about to change. As British forces moved northward toward North Carolina, they encountered strong resistance from frontier fighters using guerrilla tactics. In October 1780, one wing of Lord Cornwallis's royal army was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain in northern South Carolina. Then, in January 1781, 960 of 1,100 British soldiers were killed, captured or wounded at Hannah's Cowpens in western South Carolina. After suffering 506 casualties in Guilford Courthouse in central North Carolina in March 1781, Cornwall's army retreated into Virginia. Lord Cornwallis received orders to take up defensive positions in Virginia. He decided to deploy his troops at Yorktown, near Chesapeake Bay.

Suddenly, Washington had an opportunity to defeat the British army. A French fleet sailing northward from the West Indies succeeded in sealing off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, a combined force of 7,800 French troops and 9,000 Americans marched southward from New York and surrounded Lord Cornwallis's army of 8,500 at Yorktown. On October 17, 1781, a British drummer marched toward the French and American lines carrying a white flag of surrender.

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