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How were the colonies able to win independence? Previous Next
Digital History ID 3220


In 1778, the royal army consisted of nearly 50,000 regular troops combined with over 30,000 German (Hessian) mercenaries. George Washington, in contrast, never had more than 20,000 troops under his command at any one time. Most of these American soldiers were young (ranging in age from their early teens to their mid-20s), landless, unskilled, and poor. Others were indentured servants and slaves who were serving as substitutes for their masters and had been promised freedom at the war's end. Also in the Continental army were many women who cared for the sick and wounded, cooked, mended clothes, buried the dead, and sometimes served in combat.

What made American victory possible?

For one thing, conquering the colonies was an almost impossible task. The sheer geographical size of the colonies made it impossible for British forces to occupy the countryside. Because of their inability to control the countryside, the British found it difficult to protect Loyalists from the fury of patriots, who sometimes tarred and feathered and even murdered those who remained loyal to the Crown. The colonies also lacked a single national capital, which, if captured, might end the conflict.

A major British mistake was failing to take sufficient advantage of Loyalists. Before the Revolutionary War began, some 50,000 Loyalists formed nearly 70 regiments to help the British maintain control the colonies. But British commanders did not trust the loyalists or respect their fighting ability. As a result, the British alienated many potential supporters.

The guerrilla tactics that Americans had learned during Indian wars proved very effective in fighting the British army. Militia men struck quickly, often from behind trees or fences, then disappeared into the forests. Because many Americans wore ordinary clothing, it was difficult for the British to distinguish rebels and loyalists.

Washington's strategy of avoiding large-scale confrontations with the royal army made it impossible for the British to deliver a knock-out blow. Only once during the Revolution (at Charleston, S.C. in 1780) did an American army surrender to British forces.

The intervention of France, Spain, and the Netherlands in the conflict made a crucial difference in the Revolution's outcome. It is highly improbable that the United States could have won its independence without the assistance of France, Spain, and Holland. Fearful of losing its sugar colonies in the West Indies, Britain was unable to concentrate its military forces in the American colonies.

All slave societies are highly vulnerable during wartime, and the British recognized that slaves might help them suppress the Revolution. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, Virginia's royal governor, issued an emancipation proclamation, freeing any slaves or indentured servants willing to serve in the royal army. At least 800 slaves joined Lord Dunmore's forces. But the threat of slave emancipation led many southern slaveholders to support the patriot cause.

Perhaps the single most important reason for the patriot victory was the breadth of popular support for the Revolution. The Revolution would have failed miserably without the participation of thousands of ordinary farmers, artisans, and laborers who put themselves into the line of fire. The Revolution's support cut across region, religion, and social rank. Common farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, petty merchants were major actors during the Revolution. Ex-servants, uneducated farmers, immigrants, and slaves emerged into prominence in the Continental Army.

The growth of popular participation in politics began even before the Revolution. In the years preceding the war, thousands of ordinary Americans began to participate in politics--in non-importation and non-exportation campaigns, in anti-Tory mobs, and in committees of correspondence linking inland villages and seaports. Many men joined groups like the Sons of Liberty to protest British encroachments on American liberties. Many women took the lead in boycotts of British goods; they also took up the spinning wheel to produce homespun clothes. During the Revolution itself, some 400,000 Americans, including at least 5,000 African Americans, served in the fighting for at least some time.

How was the war paid for?

Congress was reluctant to levy taxes. Instead, it borrowed money by issuing bonds. It also printed money, resulting in terrible inflation. The worthlessness of Continental currency inspired the phrase, "not worth a Continental." It became more difficult to get people to lend money. By 1779 and 1780, Washington's army had to confiscate supplies in order to feed and clothe itself.

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