The American Revolution 1775-1777
Copyright © 2010 Henry J. Sage

The Real Revolution Begins:  The “Shots Heard Around the World”

In 1775 British Prime Minister Lord North offered a reconciliation plan, but it was rejected by the Americans, and the colony of Massachusetts was declared to be in a state of rebellion.  The newly appointed governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, whose appointment stirred further animosity in that he was a military man, took it upon himself to preempt any possible hostile action on the part of the overheated Bostonians and their friends in the Massachusetts countryside.  Loyalists in the area kept General Gage informed of events.

When General Gage’s spies learned of the quasi-military preparations being made by the patriots, he issued orders to his officers to arrest rebel leaders (he knew who many of them were) and directed his troops to march to Concord to seize the military stores being gathered there.  On the night of April 18, 1775, the patriot line of communication discovered General Gage’s intentions, and Paul Revere, Dr. Samuel Prescott, and William Dawes were to be signaled with lanterns in the Old North Church about the British advance across the Charles River: “One if by land, two if by sea.”  Revere and the others rode off to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who fled to avoid arrest.

Early in the morning of April 19, General Gage’s seven hundred troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith were marching toward Concord to capture stores when they encountered a group of American Minutemen under the command of Captain John Parker. The British commander ordered, “Disperse you damned rebels!”  But someone fired a shot and a brief skirmish broke out, leaving eight Americans dead and ten wounded. Minutemen, colonial militia, continued to gather ahead of the British line of march, and they removed most of the supplies from Concord before the redcoats arrived.  The British destroyed most of what was left but were forced to retreat back toward Boston.  All during their retreat, more Minutemen arrived along the route and harassed the British, firing from behind fences and trees and inflicting heavy losses.  General Gage sent out a relief party to aid the beleaguered soldiers, but more than two hundred were killed or wounded.  The American Revolution had begun.

It was clear that once the shooting had begun in earnest, it would very difficult to turn back and find grounds for reconciliation.  George III declared, “Blows will decide!” how it would all turn out.

The Nature of the American Revolution

Many theories about revolution have been put forth, but they do not always explain what happened in America.  For example, it is assumed that a necessary ingredient of revolution is widespread discontent, yet the average American was in general as well off as anyone in the world at that time. It may also be argued that the American colonists were behaving like spoiled children, unable to grasp their responsibilities as citizens of a supposedly benevolent empire. To be sure, many colonists felt that they were being treated badly by their home government, but it is not always clear to what extent wrongs are real or perceived.  In the end, it probably does not matter; the Americans had come to see the British as oppressors ready to curb their rights and plunder their pocketbooks. Once that feeling was extant, it would have taken considerable generosity of spirit by Crown and Parliament to reverse the trend. Crown and Parliament were in no mood for that, despite warning by men such as Edmund Burke who were sympathetic to the American cause.

 It is interesting to note that four major revolutions (the English, American, French, and Russian) all began with government trying to get more money out of the people.

Viewing all revolutionary leaders as “wild-eyed radicals” is a cliché.  Many American leaders were almost boring in their lack of revolutionary passion.  Washington was a very non-revolutionary figure, one of the least radical Americans, yet he was technically guilty of treason.  The rank-and-file soldiers who fought with Washington generally came from the working classes. The most passionate patriots, men such as Patrick Henry of Virginia, used rhetoric to advance the revolutionary cause, generally with significant success.  (See Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech.)

The real causes of the American Revolution involved a number of attitudes.  The colonists had developed a sense of national identity; their isolation from the mother country during most of the colonial period developed a spirit of common interest, though it had been slow in developing.  Once the Revolution began, however, Benjamin Franklin expressed their situation as follows: “We had best hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.”  An additional factor was that for the discontent that did exist, there was no easy avenue for redress of grievances.

In many ways the British had no one to blame but themselves; their governance of the colonies was an unending stream of insensitivity and inflexibility:  One real cause of the war was “imperial mismanagement”—they failed to consult the colonists on almost all major policy issues, feeling that what was good for the Empire was good for all its parts, all the while treating the colonies as “dependent children.”  Connected to this failure was the British idea of “virtual representation,” which the colonists rejected.

One question has always intrigued historians: whether the American Revolution was a real revolution or a conservative reaction to changing circumstances.  It has been noted that the Revolution did not change the essential social, economic, or power structure of the colonies.  In contrast to the notion of a conservative revolution, however, historian Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a relatively recent book (and a Pulitzer Prize winner), makes a number of interesting points.  Noting that the American Revolution was long considered “conservative,” he argues that when viewed in terms of social change, the American revolution was “as radical as any in history.”  The American Revolution forever redefined the relationship between a government and its people.

The real key to the idea of revolution (in the opinion of this writer) is that prior to the American Revolution, the responsibility for honest, virtuous, or just plain good government  resided in the hands of the power structure—the Crown and the aristocracy.  From 1776 onward, that responsibility lay in the hands of the American people.  Thomas Paine made that point most eloquently in Common Sense.

From Armed Resistance to Independence

Just as many Americans remained loyal to the Crown throughout the Revolution, many in England tried to see things from the commonest perspective.  But along with a certain degree of sympathy there was significant resentment, for the standard of living of Americans was not at all bad.  There was little great wealth in America but less poverty than elsewhere.  One member of Parliament, Edmund Burke, argued to his colleagues, “Your scheme will yield nothing but discontent, disorder, and disobedience.”

The Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, a month after the fighting had begun.  One major question to be addressed was whether it was too late for reconciliation.  The answer is that it was probably so, but independence was still not yet on the table.  But with the British Army in Boston and American army forming in the field surrounding the city, more and more leaders were beginning to think of a permanent separation. This second Congress was a more radical and more distinguished group than the members of the First Continental Congress, and in the course of events the second Congress became, de facto, the government of the United States until the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781. 

The first of one of the Congress's most important actions was to appoint George Washington of Virginia as commander in chief of the Continental Army.  His appointment was sponsored by John Adams who wish to make it clear that this was an American Revolution, not just a rebellion in Massachusetts.  Feelings of unity among the colonies were certainly beginning to be felt, but each colony was still aware of and protective of its own individual rights. In addition to pointing Washington as commander in chief, the Congress sent an “Olive Branch Petition” composed by John Dickinson to King George III on July 5.  In October or November the Congress officially created a United States Navy and Marine Corps and began to think about establishing friendly relations with other nations.  Eventually Congress would dispatch diplomats to negotiate treaties.  The Congress also invited Canada to join the rebellion, an offer that was politely refused.

The Balance of Forces

The task facing the American patriots in fighting Great Britain was daunting, to say the least.  Despite having fought a series of colonial and territorial wars in Europe and around the world, the British were still an extremely powerful and wealthy nation. And although England was complacent regarding its ability to defeat the rebels, the objective of the British would prove to be challenging.  The British had to fight an offensive war and defeat the colonies in detail in order to stamp out the rebellion.  The colonists, conversely, only had to keep the fight going long enough to wear out the British.  In the end, that’s what they did, but it took seven years. 

To meet challenge, the British sent an enormous force to North America, the largest overseas deployment they had ever conducted.  The British had a powerful and skillful navy, a well-trained standing army, and resources enough to hire foreign mercenaries.  British sea power gave its commanders the flexibility to attack the Americans in different locations—they could call the shots.  In sheer numbers British outnumbered the Americans by a substantial margin of about two to one, but the British soldiers were better equipped and trained.  Despite their numerical superiority, the British strategy was essentially one of “divide and conquer.” 

The Americans were on the defensive from the beginning.  General Gage was commander in chief at the outset; under him were Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne—all in all a less than impressive group. The British also had the assistance of a significant number of loyalists, who comprised approximately one fifth of the total colonial population.  Scattered among their patriot neighbors, however, the loyalists were not well organized, and the British did not exploit them fully, nor did they trust them.  Nevertheless, thousands of loyalists participated at least passively on the British side, sometimes acting as informants or outright spies.  Especially in the southern colonies, where loyalist strength was strong, their presence was particularly sharply felt, and some of the most bitter fighting of the Revolution was conducted in the southern areas, where Americans were often fighting against Americans.

American advantages were perhaps less concrete, but no less real.  First, they were fighting for a cause in which many of them believed passionately.  Second, the fighting was on their home turf; America had a vast interior, and resources could be assembled rapidly from local populations in case of emergency.  Americans officers and soldiers had gained valuable experience during the colonial wars.  The American navy was small, but privateers (privately owned vessels authorized to harass enemy shipping) did well—American seamen were experienced and skillful.  John Paul Jones became the most famous naval hero, but there were others. The Americans received substantial aid from foreign powers, especially France, and Congress received a flood of offers from foreign “soldiers of fortune,” many of them bogus.  But foreign officers such as the Marquis de Lafayette made valuable contributions. Most important, perhaps, the Americans had George Washington, the right man for the job, whose participation in the creation of the United States has made him in the eyes of his biographer “the indispensable man.”

Early Fighting:  The War in the North 1775.  Within weeks after the opening skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, thousands of Patriot militia men had gathered around Boston and begun a siege of the British forces, which continued into 1776.  General Artemas Ward was declared commander in chief by the Provincial Congress.  Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire also voted to send troops to Boston, and by the beginning of June a substantial if somewhat ill-trained and undersupplied army of patriots was on hand opposite the British positions. On May 10, American forces led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold attacked Fort Ticonderoga successfully and captured a substantial number of cannons.  By March 1776 General Henry Knox had successfully hauled the captured cannons and mortars to Cambridge to support Washington’s army.  The Americans also captured Crown Point, and Benedict Arnold occupied St. John’s across the Canadian border.

General Gage, supported by additional forces under Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne, imposed martial law on Massachusetts and declared the Patriots in a state of rebellion to be traitors.  When Patriot leaders discovered that Gage was planning to expand his position to higher ground, they began digging fortifications on Breed’s Hill, near Bunker Hill.  When Gage discovered the activity, he ordered British warships to fire on the positions and then planned a frontal assault.  With General Howe leading the charge, the British were driven back twice with heavy losses but finally took Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill when the Patriots ran out of ammunition.

Bunker Hill, as it has been called ever since, was but a Pyrrhic victory for the British, as General Gage lost more than one thousand men; American casualties were four hundred.  The only factor that made the engagement a victory for the British was the fact that they occupied the ground when the battle was over.  One British officer expressed the opinion that, with one more victory like this, “we are finished.” Under the leadership of President John Hancock, the Continental Congress had appointed Washington to be commander in chief in June and authorized expenditures in support of the Army.  Washington arrived in Boston on July 3 to take command and was disappointed in what he saw.  He discovered that he had been misinformed concerning the amount of supplies and munitions on hand, and he was initially appalled by the lackadaisical attitude of some officers and the slovenly appearance and poor discipline of the troops.  He is said to have complained, “Is this the rabble with which I am to defend America?”

Washington as a Military Commander

washingtonGeorge Washington is generally considered to have been the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, an epithet he undoubtedly deserves.  Paradoxically, however, he was by disposition one of the least revolutionary men in America, yet he was a great revolutionary leader.  Although he is not often described as a brilliant general, he was more than adequate to the occasion.  His most significant achievement was holding the Revolution together through some very difficult years.  He eventually got significant assistance from European officers, most notably the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron Johann de Kalb, Count Casimir Pulaski, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and others. 

Washington’s goal was to create a regular 18th-century-style army and fight traditional battles against the British, but that goal was difficult to achieve under the circumstances. Washington knew very little of the formal science of war—he was not a military theorist and had not studied the great published works on war.  Lacking a talent for conducting training, he turned that task over to subordinates, especially the Europeans such as Baron von Steuben, a former aide to the Prussian Frederick the Great. 

Nevertheless, Washington was able, loyal, cautious, devoted, and patient—and he brought great dignity to the cause. Washington’s essential gift was in his character.  Although he could never be called humble, he was nevertheless uncorrupted and not tempted by power.  He was remarkably respectful of civil authority even though he had considerable reason to be contemptuous. He often fumed privately about the lack of support he received from Congress and wrote letters of protest about shortages within his army.  Overall he was unquestionably a wise and good man and a dedicated leader—he cared for his officers and men and commanded their loyalty, respect, and affection. Washington’s strategy was necessarily reactionary—he was obliged to keep out of harm’s way wherever possible.  On the advice of Lieutenant Alexander Hamilton and others, he maneuvered so as to keep his army from being trapped between the British Army and the sea.  He worked hard to address the problem of lack of unity based on his soldiers’ regional loyalties.  He continually maintained that the Army was American, not a collection of various colonial militias.  Keeping his soldiers’ fighting spirits up was a struggle against what Thomas Paine called “summer soldiers.” 

Although the length of the war unified the Americans, it also exhausted Washington and his men.  The fact that he never gave in to despair or lost faith in the eventual outcome was a remarkable achievement.  Washington’s subordinates included Artemas Ward, who had commanded Massachusetts militia; Charles Lee, a veteran of the British army; New York’s Philip Schuyler; Israel Putnam, an ex-tavern keeper; Horatio Gates, who became adjutant general; Nathaniel Greene; and Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” (on whom the Mel Gibson character in The Patriot was based) .  As has been true in most wars, generals could at times be petty, jealous, and quarrelsome, and even disloyal—as Benedict Arnold demonstrated—another reason why Washington’s steadfastness at the top was so important.

Early Troubles

On the 5th of July Congress sent to the Crown what is known as the “Olive Branch Petition,” which expressed hope for possible reconciliation, but the time for reconciliation had ended when the actual fighting began.  Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson wrote a resolution, which Congress adopted, declaring reasons for the Americans taking up arms, but the time for declaring independence had not yet arrived. In August 1775 King George III declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.  The early skirmishes that had cost casualties led the British public to demand retaliation, not reconciliation.  In that same month Philip Schuyler’s campaign against Québec began, a response to news that General Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander in Canada, was planning to invade New York. 

In September Benedict Arnold was commissioned by General Washington to invade Canada; Washington was confident that the Canadians as fellow sufferers would join in the Revolution.  Arnold joined forces with General Richard Montgomery, who had relieved General Schuyler because of the latter’s poor health.  Arnold’s expedition took until early December, when his assault on the city of Québec ended in disaster.  General Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded.  The Americans lost four hundred men and retreated to Fort Ticonderoga.

1776

For obvious reasons 1776 was a pivotal year in the American Revolution.  Once Americans declared independence, there could no longer be any thought of turning back.  On March 4 the Americans occupied Dorchester Heights in Boston overlooking the British positions. With the artillery laboriously hauled from Fort Ticonderoga by General Knox, the Americans now held commanding positions.  Increased enlistments and arrival of troops from neighboring colonies reinforced Washington’s army to near twenty thousand, and on March 17 General Howe, having relieved General Gage of command, withdrew his troops to Nova Scotia. (Boston Evacuation Day, which coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, is still enthusiastically celebrated in the heavily Irish area of South Boston.)

Correctly perceiving that Howe’s next move would be against New York, Washington set sail for that city while his army was marched overland.  (En route to New York, the Army came face-to-face with the continuing sense of local loyalties that often frustrated the American cause.  Upon reaching the border between Connecticut and New York, Washington’s commander was met by a delegation from the New York Provincial Congress demanding to know by whose authority this “foreign army” was being brought into New York.) Washington arrived in New York in April.  In July the British fleet under William Howe arrived off Staten Island and landed ten thousand men unopposed.  He was soon joined by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, who had arrived from England with additional ships and men. 

By August the British force numbered thirty-two thousand, including nine thousand Hessian troops who had been hired by Great Britain to assist the British Army. The superior British force soon routed the American army in the battle of Long Island, but with the assistance of John Glover’s Marblehead Mariners, Washington was able to salvage most of his army by moving back into New York City.  In September the British landed twelve thousand troops on Manhattan Island from the East River and Washington retreated northward, fighting and delaying action at Harlem Heights on September 16.  In October the Battle of White Plains forced Washington to retreat further and to give up Hudson River forts Washington and Lee.  As Washington’s army retreated through New Jersey toward Philadelphia, British military authorities collected thousands of oaths of allegiance from Americans, many of whom had supported independence.  The times were distinctly sufficient to “try men’s souls.”

The Move for Independence

Two events occurred in 1776 that pushed the Americans to declare independence.  The first was the news that King George III had hired Hessian troops—foreigners—to fight against his own countrymen.  Many whose loyalty to the Patriot cause had been suspect were now galvanized against the Crown. The second event was the publication of the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine.  Paine had arrived in America in 1774 with letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, who was still in England at the time.  Ever a controversial figure, Paine was nevertheless a passionate believer in freedom.  Ineffective as a soldier, he wrote his pamphlet that soon became one of the most widely read documents in American history.  (By today’s standards, it would be a mega best seller.)

Paine’s words were supremely rational he began his argument thus: Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one:  for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.  Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. One hundred thousand copies were printed, and evidence suggests that most were passed around to many readers.  Meanwhile, Congress debated the purposes of the war. 

Rumors and talk of independence abounded, but many were less than enthusiastic.  Declaring independence would be a drastic step with severe penalties possible in case of failure. On June 7 Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution to Congress calling for America to declare independence from Great Britain once and for all.  A lively debate ensued between those who supported the resolution and those who were still hesitant.  On June 11 the committee, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was appointed to draft a declaration.  At Adams’s suggestion, Thomas Jefferson prepared the first draft, and with changes made by Adams and Franklin the declaration was presented on June 28.  On July 2 Congress voted to support the independence resolution, and on July 4 Congress formally endorsed Jefferson’s Declaration.  The actual signing of the great document began on August 2.

signing the declaration

On July 3 John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.  It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. —I  am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. —Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.  I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means.

hancock

Despite the morale boost of the Declaration, American morale in December 1776 was still low after repeated defeats and humiliating retreats.  General Howe went into winter quarters in New York, leaving fourteen hundred Hessian soldiers at Trenton.  Washington, in  Pennsylvania and frustrated by his losses, was informed that the Hessians were unprepared.  He gathered reinforcements by December 20, and on December 25th he crossed the Delaware River with his army. Early on the morning of December 26 Washington struck, catching the Hessians completely by surprise as they recovered from their holiday festivities.  Washington captured more than nine hundred Hessian soldiers and numerous supplies; his own army suffered only five casualties. The 2000 film “The Crossing” with Jeff Daniels is an excellent dramatization of Washington’s daring raid on Trenton. Heartened by his success, Washington struck again on January 3, 1777, at Princeton, where he achieved a quick victory over Cornwallis. 

Although the victories were not large in terms of numbers engaged, Washington’s tactical victories gave an enormous boost to American morale, not only in his army but among all Patriots who got word of the victories.  Prussian leader Frederick the Great called Washington’s surprise attacks “brilliant.”  The British evacuated most of their troops from New Jersey, and Washington retired to winter quarters in Morristown.

1777: The Saratoga Campaign

Map of the Saratoga Campaign

The year 1777 was a crucial year in the American struggle for independence.  The year 1776 had been highlighted, of course, by the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which was the great turning point of the war in terms of the overall objective.  But the fighting in 1776 had been less than successful.  Only General Washington’s daring advance across the Delaware that led to victories at Trenton and Princeton saved the year from being a total washout.

In 1777 the British adopted what they hoped would be a decisive strategy to divide the colonies along the Hudson River-Lake George-Lake Champlain line, detaching New England, long seen by British authorities as the hotbed of the rebellion, from her sister colonies.  They planned an ambitious, three-pronged attack against the Americans, led by British Generals John Burgoyne, Barry St. Leger, and William Howe.

 The campaign, whose goal was consistent with the overall British strategy of divide and conquer, was probably too complicated for the times.  It involved a series of maneuvers that required full cooperation by officers who were not in direct communication with each other.  General Burgoyne was to attack from Canada along Lake Champlain and Lake George toward Albany.  General St. Leger was to head eastward from Lake Erie via the Mohawk River toward Albany, and General Howe to send ten thousand troops up the Hudson River toward the same convergence point. The major portion of the campaign involved General Burgoyne’s advance from Canada down toward Albany.  Accompanied by Hessian mercenaries, including German officers and their wives, and a huge baggage train, which included what could only be called luxury items not really needed for  a wilderness campaign, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, as he was known, made his way ponderously down from Canada with eight thousand troops.  American General Horatio Gates, in overall command of the Americans, had concentrated his forces at Albany. Burgoyne’s campaign began with promise.  He passed the fort at Crown Point and captured Fort Ticonderoga on July 5 after the Americans evacuated.  On August 16, however, British fortunes began to change.

At the Battle of Bennington General John Stark and the Vermont militia defeated a detachment of Burgoyne’s army.  American raiders had begun harassing Burgoyne’s supply lines, so on September 13 and 14 Burgoyne crossed to the west bank of the Hudson River, cutting off his own retreat, thus committing his army to battle. On September 19 at the Battle of Freeman’s farm, General Benedict Arnold repulsed Burgoyne’s army, and on October 7 at the Battle of Bemis Heights, Generals Arnold and Daniel Morgan again repulsed Burgoyne, who withdrew to Saratoga, now surrounded and with supply lines cut off.  Forced to give up the fight, on October 17 Burgoyne surrendered his entire army, a stunning victory for the Americans. The victory at Saratoga was the major military turning point of the American Revolution:  It provided a tremendous morale boost for Americans, who showed they could defeat a large British army in the field. 

The Americans captured three hundred officers, including seven generals, and more than five thousand troops.  The contribution of the Marquis de Lafayette foreshadowed more formal French assistance and recognition of American independence. Meanwhile, the second component of the campaign was going badly as well.  St. Leger had advanced along the Mohawk River accompanied by one thousand Iroquois Indians under Chief Joseph Brant, capturing Ft. Stanwix.  On August 8, however, American General Herkimer won a hard-fought victory over the British at Oriskany, stalling St. Leger.  Benedict Arnold, also with Iroquois Indians (who fought on both sides), bluffed St. Leger into thinking he was attacking with a large force.  St. Leger’s Indian allies departed, taking supplies, and he was forced to withdraw. General Howe, meanwhile, who had been working his way toward Albany to assist Burgoyne, decided instead to capture Philadelphia—which he did easily—once he learned that Burgoyne had surrendered.  Howe desired to take advantage of the loyalist sentiment that existed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Effects of Saratoga

The American victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to offer a formal alliance—founded on their desire to revenge the losses in the French and Indian War, as well as by Benjamin Franklin’s brilliant diplomacy—that turned the American rebellion into a much wider war.  From the beginning of hostilities, France had secretly been supplying the Americans with arms, using phony corporations as a cover.  After Saratoga, England feared an open alliance between France and America and proposed peace.  Parliament offered to repeal all acts passed after 1763, to respect the right of Americans to tax themselves, and to withdraw all English troops.  The Americans, however, by now preferred full independence and were no longer in a mood to bargain.  Louis XVI of France recognized American independence in December 1777.  In January 1778 French Minister Vergennes offered to enter into two treaties with the United States, military and commercial.

Meanwhile, Spain decided to join the fight against Great Britain but did not recognize the United States minister to Spain, John Jay.  Jay failed to gain Spanish recognition of independence but did manage to borrow small amount of money.  Spain was anxious to recoup some of its holdings in North America, which in fact did occur:  Florida was returned to Spain during the peace negotiations in 1783.  Also making Great Britain’s situation more troublesome, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Portugal entered the “League of Armed Neutrality.”  Although those nations did not actively intervene on the American side, their action meant that Great Britain was, in effect, fighting the entire Western world. Saratoga and its aftereffects were the second great turning point of the war, the first having been the Great Declaration of 1776.

The Philadelphia Campaign

In the spring of 1777, Howe decided to abandon New Jersey and invade Pennsylvania by sea.  In July he re-embarked at Staten Island with more than two hundred ships and landed south of Philadelphia at Head-of-Elk, Maryland.  Washington’s army at that time was near Wilmington and moved to a blocking position at Brandywine Creek.  From September 9 to 11, Howe’s army maneuvered his army as Washington prepared his defenses.  Because of inadequate reconnaissance and confusion, Washington was driven back in an otherwise indecisive battle and retreated toward Philadelphia.  Washington lost about one thousand men to some five hundred British casualties. On September 19 General Anthony Wayne was routed by a surprise British night attack at Paoli, and Congress evacuated Philadelphia, eventually setting up in York, Pennsylvania.  Supplies were removed to Reading for safekeeping, and Congress granted Washington more authority to deal with the critical situation. 

On September 26 the British entered the city of Philadelphia unopposed and were warmly welcomed by the loyalist population. On October 4 Washington began an attack on Howe’s base at Germantown.  After some initial success, the battlefield again became disorganized because of fog and confusion, and Washington withdrew with losses of seven hundred casualties and four hundred captured.  Howe settled into Philadelphia, and Washington moved into winter quarters at Valley Forge.  Although Washington suffered two defeats, neither proved to be disastrous.  Nevertheless, because of expired enlistments and other reasons, Washington’s army had dwindled considerable in size, and he found himself critically short of supplies.

Valley Forge.  Although winter quarters at Morristown in 1776–77 and 1778–79 were  painful experiences for Washington’s men, Valley Forge is remembered as a time of particular hardship.  It was said that the path into the camp could be traced by the bloody footprints in the snow, and during the long cold winter Washington soldiers struggled just to keep from freezing and to find enough food to stay alive.  During the bitter winter, however, Baron von Steuben drilled and trained the American troops, imparting discipline and tactical skills.  (It was reported that the good Baron, whose English was imperfect, used an American aide to swear for him, as he had difficulty managing American curse words.)

The Conway Cabal also occurred in the fall of 1777, a reminder of the constant intrusion of politics into the American ranks.  Disgruntled Irish Colonel Thomas Conway tried to undermine Washington, but the so-called plot never got anywhere.  It was a distraction the commander in chief hardly needed, but Conway resigned and later apologized to Washington.

American Revolution Home | Updated November 7, 2016