The Causes of American War of Independence The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was a conflict that erupted between Great Britain and revolutionaries within thirteen British colonies, who declared their independence as the United States of America in 1776. The war was the culmination of the American Revolution, a colonial struggle against political and economic policies of the British Empire. The war eventually widened far beyond British North America; many Native Americans also fought on both sides of the conflict.
Throughout the war, the British were able to use their naval superiority to capture and occupy coastal cities, but control of the countryside (where most of the population lived) largely eluded them. After an American victory at Saratoga in 1777, France, Spain, and the Netherlands entered the war against Great Britain. French involvement proved decisive, with a naval victory in the Chesapeake leading to the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 recognized the independence of the United States.
Combatants before 1778
Colonists were divided over which side to support in the war; in some areas, the struggle was a civil war. The Revolutionaries (also known as Americans or Patriots) had the active support of about 40 to 45 percent of the colonial population. About 15 to 20 percent of the population supported the British Crown during the war, and were known as Loyalists (or Tories). Loyalists fielded perhaps 50,000 men during the war years in support of the British Empire. After the war, some 70,000 Loyalists departed the United States, most going to Canada, Great Britain, or to British colonies in the Caribbean.
When the war began, the Americans did not have a regular army (also known as a “standing army”). Each colony had traditionally provided for its own defenses through the use of local militia. Militiamen served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to go very far from home, and were thus generally unavailable for extended operations. Militia lacked the training and discipline of regular soldiers, but was occasionally effective against regular troops. American militia was sometimes adept at partisan warfare, and was particularly effective at suppressing Loyalist activity when British regulars were not in the area.
Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established (on paper) a regular army—the Continental Army—in June 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington reluctantly augmented the regular troops with militia throughout the war. Although as many as 250,000 men may have served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, there were never more than 90,000 total men under arms for the Americans in any given year.
Armies in North America were small by European standards of the era; the greatest number of men that Washington personally commanded in the field at any one time was fewer than 17,000. Early in 1775, the British Army consisted of about 36,000 men worldwide, but wartime recruitment steadily increased this number. Additionally, over the course of the war the British hired about 30,000 German mercenaries, popularly known in the colonies as “Hessians” because many of them came from Hesse-Kassel. Germans would make up about one-third of the British troop strength in North America.
By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America was over 60,000, though these were spread from Canada to Florida. African-Americans, slaves and free blacks, served on both sides during the war. Black soldiers served in northern militias from the outset, but this was forbidden in the South, where slave-owners feared arming slaves. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British; Sir Henry Clinton issued a similar edict in New York in 1779.
Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to the British lines, although possibly as few as 1,000 served under arms. Many of the rest served as orderlies, mechanics, laborers, servants, scouts and guides, although more than half died in smallpox epidemics that swept the British forces, and a number were driven out of the British lines when food ran low. Despite Dunmore’s promises, the majority were not given their freedom. Due to manpower shortages, Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776.
All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many were slaves promised freedom for serving in lieu of their masters. Another all-black unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause. Most American Indians east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, with many communities dividing over the question of how to respond to the conflict. Most Native Americans who joined the fight fought against the United States, since native lands were threatened by expanding American settlement.
An estimated 13,000 warriors fought on the British side; the largest group, the Iroquois Confederacy, fielded about 1,500 men. War in the north, 1775–1777 Before the war, Boston, Massachusetts had been the scene of much revolutionary activity, leading to the effective abolition of the provincial government of Massachusetts by the British parliament in 1774. Popular resistance to these measures, however, compelled the newly appointed royal officials in Massachusetts to resign or to seek refuge in Boston.
Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British Commander-in-Chief, North America, commanded four regiments of British regulars (about 4,000 men) from his headquarters in Boston, but the countryside was in the hands of the Revolutionaries. On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 900 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord, Massachusetts. Riders alerted the countryside, and when the British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found 75 minutemen formed up on the village common.
Shots were exchanged, and the British moved on to Concord, where there was more fighting. By the time the British began the return march to Boston, thousands of militiamen had arrived on the scene, inflicting much damage upon the detachment. With the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the war had begun. The militia then converged on Boston, bottling up the British in the city. About 4,500 more British soldiers arrived by sea, and on June 17, 1775, British forces under General William Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Americans fell back, but British losses were so heavy that the attack was not followed up. The siege was not broken, and Gage was soon replaced by Howe as the British commander-in-chief. In July 1775, newly appointed General Washington arrived outside Boston to take charge of the colonial forces and to organize the Continental Army. The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter. In early March 1776, heavy cannons that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga were placed on Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British positions. Howe’s situation was now untenable, and he British evacuated the city on March 17, 1776, sailing for temporary refuge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Washington then took most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City. During the long standoff at Boston, the Continental Congress sought a way to seize the initiative elsewhere. Congress had initially invited the French Canadians to join them as the fourteenth colony, but when that failed to happen, an invasion of Canada was authorized. The goal was to remove British rule from the primarily francophone province of Quebec (comprising present-day Quebec and Ontario).
Two expeditions were undertaken. On September 16, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen, capturing Montreal on November 13. General Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, escaped to Quebec City. The second expedition, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold, was a logistical nightmare, with many men succumbing to smallpox. By the time Arnold reached Quebec City in early November, he had but 600 of his original 1,100 men. Montgomery’s force joined Arnold’s, and they attacked Quebec City on December 31, but were soundly defeated by Carleton.
The remaining Americans held on outside Quebec City until the spring of 1776, and then withdrew. Another attempt was made by the Americans to push back towards Quebec, but failed at Trois-Rivieres on June 8, June 1776. Carleton then launched his own invasion, and defeated Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion of Canada had begun. The invasion of Canada ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s efforts in 1776 delayed a full-scale British counteroffensive until the Saratoga campaign of 1777.
Having withdrawn his army from Boston, General Howe now focused on capturing New York City. To defend the city, General Washington divided his 20,000 soldiers between Long Island and Manhattan. (While British troops were assembling on Staten Island for the campaign, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence read to his men. ) On August 27, 1776, after landing about 22,000 men on Long Island, the British drove the Americans back to Brooklyn Heights. Howe then laid siege to fortifications there, but Washington managed to evacuate his army to Manhattan.
On September 15, Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City. The Americans withdrew to Harlem Heights, where they skirmished the next day, but held their ground. When Howe moved to encircle Washington’s army in October, the Americans again fell back, and a battle at White Plains was fought on October 28, 1776. Once more Washington retreated, and Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November, taking nearly 3,000 prisoners.
General Lord Cornwallis continued to chase Washington’s army through New Jersey, until the Americans withdrew across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December. With the campaign at an apparent conclusion for the season, the British entered winter quarters. Although Howe had missed several opportunities to crush the diminishing rebel army, he had killed or captured over 5,000 Americans. He controlled much of New York and New Jersey, and was in a good position to resume operations in the spring, with the rebel capital of Philadelphia in striking distance.
The outlook of the Continental Army was bleak. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine, who was with the army on the retreat. The army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty, and would be reduced to 1,400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Congress had abandoned Philadelphia in despair, although popular resistance to British occupation was growing in the countryside. Washington decided to take the offensive, stealthily crossing the Delaware on Christmas night and capturing nearly 1,000 Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776.
Cornwallis marched to retake Trenton, but was outmaneuvered by Washington, who successfully attacked the British rearguard at Princeton on January 3, 1777. Washington then entered winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, having given a morale boost to the American cause. New Jersey militia continued to harass British and Hessian forces throughout the winter. When the British began to plan operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America: Carleton’s army in Canada, and Howe’s army in New York.
In London, Lord George Germain approved campaigns for these armies which, because of miscommunication, poor planning, and rivalries between commanders, did not work in conjunction. Although Howe successfully captured Philadelphia, the northern army was lost in a disastrous surrender at Saratoga. Both Carleton and Howe would resign after the 1777 campaign. Saratoga campaign The first of the 1777 campaigns was an expedition from Canada led by General John Burgoyne. The goal was to seize the Lake Champlain and Hudson River corridor, effectively isolating New England from the rest of the American colonies.
Burgoyne’s invasion had two components: he would lead about 10,000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York, while a second column of about 2,000 men, led by Barry St. Leger, would move down the Mohawk River valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany. Burgoyne set off in June, and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. Thereafter, his march was slowed by Americans who destroyed bridges and felled trees in his path. A detachment was sent out to seize supplies, but was decisively defeated by American militia in August, depriving Burgoyne of nearly 1,000 men.
Meanwhile, St. Leger—half of his force American Indians led by Joseph Brant—had laid siege to Fort Stanwix. American militiamen and their Indian allies marched to relieve the siege, but were ambushed and scattered at the Battle of Oriskany on August 6. When a second relief expedition approached, this time led by Benedict Arnold, St. Leger broke off the siege and returned to Canada. Burgoyne’s army was now reduced to about 6,000 men. Despite these setbacks, he determined to push on towards Albany—a fateful decision which would later produce much controversy.
An American army of 8,000 men, commanded by the General Horatio Gates, had entrenched about 10 miles (16 km) south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne tried to outflank the Americans, but was checked at the first battle of Saratoga in September. Burgoyne’s situation was desperate, but he now hoped that help from Howe’s army in New York City might be on the way. It was not: Howe had instead sailed away on an expedition to capture Philadelphia. American militiamen flocked to Gates’s army, swelling his force to 11,000 by the beginning of October. After being badly beaten at the second battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17.
Saratoga is often regarded as the turning point of the war. Revolutionary confidence and determination, suffering from Howe’s successful occupation of Philadelphia, was renewed. More importantly, the victory encouraged France to enter the war against Great Britain. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated. Philadelphia campaign Meanwhile, having secured New York City in 1776, in 1777 General Howe concentrated on capturing Philadelphia, the seat of the Revolutionary government. He moved slowly, landing 15,000 troops in late August at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay.
Washington positioned his 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia, but was driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The Continental Congress once again abandoned Philadelphia, and on September 26, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington and marched into the city unopposed. Washington unsuccessfully attacked the British encampment in nearby Germantown in early October, and then retreated to watch and wait. Washington and his army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, about 20 miles (32 km) from Philadelphia, where they would stay for the next six months.
Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a training program supervised by Baron von Steuben. Meanwhile, there was a shakeup in the British command, with General Clinton replacing Howe as commander-in-chief. French entry into the war had changed British strategy, and Clinton abandoned Philadelphia in order to reinforce New York City, now vulnerable to French naval power.
Washington shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal, and forced a battle at Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the last major battle in the north. Clinton’s army escaped to New York City in July, just before a French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing arrived off the American coast. Washington’s army returned to White Plains. Although both armies were back where they had been two years earlier, the nature of the war had now changed. An international war, 1778–1783 In 1778, the colonial rebellion in North America became an international war.
After learning of the American victory at Saratoga, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with the United States on February 6, 1778. Spain entered the war as an ally of France in June 1779, a renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Unlike France, Spain refused to recognize the independence of the United States—Spain was not keen on encouraging similar rebellions in the Spanish Empire. The Netherlands also became a combatant in 1780. All three countries had quietly provided financial assistance to the American rebels since the beginning of the war, hoping to dilute Britain’s emerging superpower status.
Widening of the naval war When the war began, the British had overwhelming naval superiority over the American colonists. The Royal Navy had over 100 ships of the line, although this fleet was old and in poor condition, a situation which would be blamed on Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty. During the first three years of the war, the Royal Navy was primarily used to transport troops for land operations and to protect commercial shipping. The American colonists had no ships of the line, and relied extensively on privatizing to harass British shipping.
The Continental Congress authorized the creation of a small Continental Navy on October 13, 1775, which was primarily used for commerce raiding. John Paul Jones became the first well-known American naval hero, capturing the HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters. French entry into the war meant that British naval superiority was now contested. The Franco-American alliance began poorly, however, with failed operations at Rhode Island in 1778 and Savannah, Georgia in 1779.
Part of the problem was that French and American military priorities were not identical: France hoped to capture British possessions in the West Indies before helping to secure American independence. While French financial assistance to the American war effort was already of critical importance, French military aid to the Americans would not show positive results until the arrival in July 1780 of an expeditionary force led by the Comte de Rochambeau. Spain entered the war with the goal of invading England, as well as recapturing Gibraltar and Minorca, which had been lost to the British in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession.
The Franco-Spanish invasion of England never materialized. Gibraltar was besieged for more than three years, but the British garrison there was resupplied after Admiral Sir George Rodney’s victory in the “Moonlight Battle” on 16 January 1780. Further Franco-Spanish efforts to capture Gibraltar were unsuccessful. On February 5, 1782, Spanish and French forces captured Minorca, which Spain retained after the war. West Indies and Gulf Coast The West Indies saw much action, with a number of islands changing hands, especially in the Lesser Antilles.
Ultimately, at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, a victory by Rodney’s fleet over the French Admiral de Grasse dashed the hopes of France and Spain to take Jamaica and other colonies from the British. On May 8, 1782, Count Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas. Nevertheless, except for the French retention of the small island of Tobago, sovereignty in the West Indies was returned to the status quo ante bellum in the 1783 peace treaty.
On the Gulf Coast, Galvez seized three British Mississippi River outposts in 1779: Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Galvez then captured Mobile in 1780 and forced the surrender of the British outpost at Pensacola in 1781. His actions led to Spain acquiring East and West Florida in the peace settlement, as well as controlling the mouth of the Mississippi River after the war—which would prove to be a major source of tension between Spain and the United States in the years to come. (Spanish Florida would ultimately be acquired by the United States in 1819. ) India and the Netherlands
The Franco-British war spilled over into India in 1780, in the form of the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The two chief combatants were Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and a key French ally, and the British government of Madras. The Anglo-Mysore conflict was bloody but inconclusive, and ended in a draw in 1784. Also in 1780, the British struck against the United Provinces of the Netherlands in order to preempt Dutch involvement in the League of Armed Neutrality, a declaration of several European powers that they would conduct neutral trade during the war.
Great Britain was not willing to allow the Netherlands to openly give aid to the American rebels. Agitation by Dutch radicals and a friendly attitude towards the United States by the Dutch government—both influenced by the American Revolution—also encouraged the British to attack. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War lasted into 1784 and was disastrous to the Dutch mercantile economy. Southern theater During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the north.
After French entry into the war, the British turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting Loyalists. This southern strategy also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where the British needed to defend their possessions against the French and Spanish. On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from Clinton’s army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. An attempt by French and American forces to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779.
Clinton then besieged Charleston, capturing it on May 12, 1780. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, paving the way for what seemed like certain conquest of the South. The tables were quickly turned on Cornwallis, however. One wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. Kings Mountain was noteworthy because it was not a battle between British redcoats and colonial troops: it was a battle between Loyalist and Patriot militia.
Tarleton’s troops were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781 by American General Daniel Morgan. General Nathanael Greene, Gates’ replacement, proceeded to wear down the British in a series of battles, each of them tactically a victory for the British, but giving no strategic advantage to the victors. Greene summed up his approach in a motto that would become famous: “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again. ” Unable to capture or destroy Greene’s army, Cornwallis moved north to Virginia.
In March 1781, General Washington dispatched General Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. “The boy cannot escape me,” Cornwallis is supposed to have said. However, Cornwallis was unable to trap Lafayette, and so he moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia in July in order to link up with the British navy. Northern and western theater West of the Appalachian Mountains and along the Canadian border, the American Revolutionary War was an “Indian War. The British and the Continental Congress both courted American Indians as allies (or urged them to remain neutral), and many Native American communities became divided over what path to take. Like the Iroquois Confederacy, tribes such as the Cherokees and the Shawnees split into factions. Some Delawares signed the first American Indian treaty with the United States, but others joined the British. The British had a shortage of regular troops after Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in 1777, and so a greater effort was made to recruit American Indians.
The British supplied their native allies from forts along the Great Lakes, and tribesmen staged raids in New York, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. As had often been true in previous conflicts, warfare between Europeans and American Indians resulted in each side attacking the other where they were most vulnerable—their homes and villages. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley and at Cherry Valley in 1778 provoked the scorched earth Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779.
In this border war, every person—man, woman, or child—was a potential casualty. In the Ohio Country and the Illinois Country, the Virginia frontiersman George Rogers Clark attempted to neutralize British influence among the Ohio tribes by capturing the outposts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes in the summer of 1778. When General Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit, retook Vincennes, Clark returned in a surprise march in February 1779 and captured Hamilton himself. However, a decisive victory in the West eluded the United States even as their fortunes had risen in the East.
The low point on the frontier came in 1782 with the Gnadenhutten massacre, when Pennsylvania militiamen—unable to track down enemy warriors—executed nearly 100 Christian Delaware noncombatants, mostly women and children. Later that year, in the last major encounter of the war, a party of Kentuckians was soundly defeated by a superior force of British regulars and Native Americans. References Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775–1783. St. Martin’s Press (New York) and Sutton Publishing (UK), 1991.
ISBN 0312067135 (1991), ISBN 0312123469 (1994 paperback), ISBN 0750928085 (2001 paperback). Analysis from a noted British military historian. Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0811705781. Military topics, references many secondary sources available at that time. Chambers, John Whiteclay II, ed. in chief. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0195071980. Duffy, Christopher.
The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 1715–1789. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1987. ISBN 0689119933. Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN 1400040310. Fenn, Elizabeth Anne. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. ISBN 0809078201. Greene, Jack P. and J. R. Pole, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991; reprint 1999. ISBN 1557865477. Collection of essays.
Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. ISBN 0870236636. Mackesy, Piers. The War for America: 1775–1783. London, Reprinted University of Nebraska Press, 1993, ISBN Highly regarded examination of British strategy and leadership. Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976 (ISBN 0195020138);
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