The great battles of our Revolutionary War—from Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton and Saratoga to King’s Mountain, Guilford Court House and the Siege of Yorktown—helped shape our national identity. Their heroes entered our national consciousness as the embodiment of virtues celebrated as characteristically American: courage and determination when confronted by a powerful adversary, endurance in adversity, loyalty to family, friends and comrades-in-arms, individual initiative and commitment to high ideals.
Some critics dismiss military history as unworthy of time and attention in the classroom, asserting that war is an activity dominated by elite white men in which ordinary people are reduced to mere numbers—soldiers arrayed in regiments and casualties on a ledger. In truth, the Revolutionary War involved men and women of every region, social class and ethnicity. The war was an interruption in the lives of farmers, craftsmen, sailors, shopkeepers and laborers—an experience that led countless ordinary men, many of whom had never been more than a few miles from home and family, to keep diaries and write letters describing their experiences. Accounts of battle often provide a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people we would rarely get otherwise. Many regarded their service in the Revolutionary War as the most important and memorable part of their lives. Those who lived long enough to apply for pensions told their war stories to court clerks and justices of the peace, often in vivid detail. Many were unable to write; they signed their statements with an X. Military history taught well is the history of ordinary people.
Teaching the Revolutionary War nonetheless presents considerable challenges. It was a long war—eight years passed between the first shots in April 1775 and the acceptance of preliminary articles of peace in April 1783. The Revolutionary War was twice as long as the Civil War, nearly twice as long as Americans fought in World War II and six times as long as Americans fought in World War I. It was the longest war in American history before the prolonged wars of our time.
It was also a sprawling war. It was fought in every one of the rebelling colonies and in the barely organized and lightly settled regions on the new nation’s southern, western and northern frontiers. It was also fought at sea—across the North Atlantic, in the Caribbean and as far away as the Indian Ocean. Although it began as a colonial rebellion in part of the British Empire, it involved the international dynamics of the European powers and touched off a war between Britain on the one side and France, Spain and Holland on the other. That wider war was fought over the balance of power between the combatants and for trade and dominion reaching around the globe.
How can a teacher hope to do justice to a war of such magnitude in the limited time available?
The only way to do it is with an outline that simplifies the war without oversimplifying it. Fortunately, there is a way to do that, though it isn’t how most teachers have approached the Revolutionary War. As unexpected as this suggestion might seem, we recommend that teachers consider presenting the war, in broad outline, from the British point of view.
Britain was one of the world’s great powers in the late eighteenth century, but like the modern United States its powers were not limitless, and projecting its power across the Atlantic and imposing its will on colonial insurgents on the North American mainland was not an easy thing to do. The task of the insurgents, once they had committed themselves to a war for independence, was fundamentally simpler in nature, although it proved difficult to accomplish. Their task was to drive British officials and the British military out, prevent Loyalists from gaining the upper hand and establish stable governments sufficient to prevent disaffection from the patriot ranks.
The British, on the other hand, had to assert their authority over thirteen lightly populated colonies spread over some 1,500 miles from Saint Augustine, Florida, to the northeastern frontier of Maine, and extending, in some places, two hundred miles or more into the interior. They had at their disposal the world’s most powerful navy, but that navy was utterly essential to the defense of the British homeland from invasion by a Continental power. They could only afford to deploy a small part of the Royal Navy in American waters.
The British army, proud though it was, was far too small to put down a continent-wide colonial insurrection. Part of the British army had to be kept in Britain for homeland defense in the unlikely event the French navy was able to achieve superiority in the English Channel long enough to mount an invasion. Another part of the Royal Navy was committed to defending overseas possessions, including Gibraltar.
Britain’s chief advantage was that the rebellious colonists were wholly unprepared for war. They had no army, no navy and no factories to produce arms, ammunition or gunpowder in quantities sufficient for war. Colonial leaders had taken no steps to secure support from Britain’s European enemies, who would be slow to commit themselves to a war in support of a colonial rebellion that might collapse in short order.
The British, after the first phase of the war, held and maintained the initiative. After being forced to evacuate the army occupying Boston in March 1776, the British mounted an invasion of the colonies to force their submission. These efforts failed when the French entered the war in the summer of 1778. Thereafter the British mounted a major offensive to regain control of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, but this effort likewise failed when the main British army in the South was forced to surrender in October 1781. This is a simple outline. It doesn’t take into account the American invasion of Canada or minor British operations in the North after 1778, nor does it address the war on the western frontier with the Indians or the Spanish assault on British West Florida. But it provides a strategy for covering the military operations of the war in a way that’s easy to grasp, focusing on a few battles, and leaves time for teachers to address the economic, political and social impact of the war.
The Siege of Boston
The first phase of the Revolutionary War, lasting about eighteen months, marked the violent end to the British effort to pacify the colonies by occupying Boston and making an example of Massachusetts by imposing an authoritarian government backed by a British army to suppress the most vocal American incendiaries. In April 1775, Massachusetts militia drove the British back to Boston and, joined by men from New England and beyond, laid siege to the British occupiers.
Britain was not prepared for war and the British ministry did not understand the depth of colonial disaffection. The ministry reinforced the British army in Boston and expected it to disperse the militia surrounding the city. Most British officials assumed the militia would flee at the approach of British regulars on a battlefield. The British generals in Boston made the same assumption. When the rebels occupied the Charlestown Neck, they decided to mount a frontal assault, confident that the regulars would overwhelm the untrained militia.
The resulting Battle of Bunker Hill is the best-known battle of this first phase of the war, and for good reason. It was the first large scale battle of the war, fought within sight of Boston, and the first battlefield test of American resolve. American troops met the test. They repulsed two frontal assaults, inflicting heavy casualties on the British. The British managed to break the American line in a third assault, but it was the costliest victory of the war. The victors accomplished nothing of any consequence. They would never underestimate the ability of Americans to defend a fortified position again.
Bunker Hill is a relatively easy battle to present in the classroom and an excellent one for students to consider through primary sources. It offers a wide array of interesting questions for discussion or research, the most intriguing ones about the lessons Americans learned from their gallant defense. Did their performance at Bunker Hill lead many Americans to overestimate the potential of militia and to discount the importance of building an army of trained regular soldiers? The need for a carefully trained and highly disciplined regular army—the Continental Army George Washington worked so hard to build—was one of the central issues of the Revolutionary War. The debate over that issue has echoed through our national history.
George Washington arrived to take command shortly after Bunker Hill and spent months shaping the unruly militia besieging Boston into the semblance of an army. The British, unwilling to risk another Bunker Hill, passed the initiative to Washington. In March 1776 the Americans fortified Dorchester Heights and rolled heavy artillery into place overlooking Boston Harbor. The British had no choice but to abandon the city and sail away, ending the first phase of the war.
At that moment the rebelling colonies were free of British troops. British governors had all fled and the colonies had each established new governments of their own. The colonists then took the logical step of declaring their independence from British rule. American war aims, which had been uncertain, became clear. The new United States was fighting to make the independence it had so bravely declared a reality by preventing the British from reasserting their authority anywhere in the thirteen independent states.
The challenge for Britain was to reassert its authority. Precisely how this might be accomplished was not entirely clear. The colonies had been valuable as a market for British manufactured goods and a source of food and raw materials, chiefly for Britain’s Caribbean colonies but also for the British homeland. A war of conquest in which the colonies were driven to submission by fire and sword would destroy, or at least compromise, the potential of the colonies as a market. It would also engender bitterness that might take generations to erase.
The British ministry opted instead to attempt to conciliate the colonies while suppressing armed resistance and appealing to the loyalty to king and Parliament it believed still characterized the majority of Americans. Events would prove that this plan was almost certainly doomed to fail. The potential for political reconciliation, after the Declaration of Independence, was never very good. The military might suppress armed resistance, but the army was too small to occupy the vast interior spaces of the colonies to maintain royal authority. Depending on loyalists was essential, but they never proved as numerous or committed as the ministry needed.
If success was possible, the more perceptive British planners recognized, speed was essential. The colonists had to be brought to terms or their armed forces defeated and dispersed quickly, or Britain’s European enemies would take advantage of Britain’s colonial distraction by attacking British colonies in the Caribbean and beyond and raiding British commerce, making the war for America too costly to continue.
The British Invasion
The second phase of the Revolution—a British invasion of the former colonies—began in the summer of 1776. The British committed much of its army, a large part of the Royal Navy, and the services of a large force of mercenaries hired from German principalities to the invasion. It was the largest expedition any European power had ever dispatched overseas.
The invasion began inauspiciously when a Royal Navy squadron dispatched to take Charleston, South Carolina, as a base for reducing the rebellion in the southern colonies was repulsed at Fort Sullivan, guarding the entrance to Charleston harbor, in June 1776. The victory was a sort of Bunker Hill of the South, suggesting to many Americans that determined short-term volunteers, defending their homes and inspired by a great cause, could defeat one of the world’s great powers.
The main British expeditionary force landed on Staten Island in July. The British commanders, General Sir William Howe and his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, met with American commissioners to propose terms for reconciliation short of American independence. The American commissioners rejected the proposal. The Howe brothers prepared for battle. Their task was to subdue the American army occupying New York and take control of the city and harbor, which was to become the British base for the conquest of America.
General Howe defeated Washington’s Continental Army in a series of battles beginning near Brooklyn. The British took control of New York City and its harbor, then drove the American army off Manhattan, capturing a large part of the Continental Army’s artillery and supplies at Fort Washington in November. The remnants of Washington’s army retreated across New Jersey and took refuge behind the Delaware River. It appeared to General Howe and many others that the war was coming to an end. Loyalists turned out in New York and New Jersey to swear their allegiance to the king.
Washington then risked his army in a daring gamble. He re-crossed the Delaware and captured the Hessian troops quartered in Trenton, New Jersey. A few days later he crossed the Delaware again, evaded a large British force at Trenton and defeated British troops stationed at Princeton, forcing the British to evacuate much of New Jersey.
The battles of Trenton and Princeton are central to understanding the second phase of the war, in which the British sought to crush the rebellion quickly. They were modest battles compared to the Battle of Brooklyn or to some of the battles—like Brandywine, Saratoga and Germantown—yet to come. But they demonstrated the resourcefulness of the American commander, George Washington, and the resilience of the men under his command.
Trenton and Princeton are more complicated than Bunker Hill to present in the classroom, but the effort is worthwhile. In the eighteen months between Bunker Hill and Trenton, Washington’s men had learned how to march and fight like an army. Their night crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River demonstrated that Washington and his generals had shaped them into a disciplined force. Their discipline may not have rivaled that of Hessian soldiers they surprised in Trenton, but it was good enough for them to execute a grueling winter march, surround the Hessians and compel their surrender. Trenton proved that the British were still a long way from suppressing armed resistance.
Princeton is a testament to Washington’s leadership. His decision to cross the Delaware a second time was bold. The British were waiting for him this time, and quickly confronted Washington’s army outside Trenton. During the night Washington slipped away to the north and encountered the British troops stationed at Princeton. The British commander matched Washington’s boldness and attacked, driving Washington’s men back. The British charge ended in hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans driven back in disarray.
What followed was Washington’s finest moment. He rallied the retreating troops, organized reinforcements and personally led a counterattack that drove the British from the field. This battlefield is preserved much as it was on that cold January morning. A visitor is struck by how small the battlefield is. At the battle’s height, British and American troops fired volleys at one another across a frozen field, their lines less than a hundred yards apart. Washington’s charging men paused on the march to exchange fire with the British at point blank range.
The British and American armies went into winter quarters in early 1777 with the outcome of the war in doubt. Britain’s effort to suppress the rebellion quickly had not yet succeeded. In the spring, French cannons, muskets, gunpowder and other supplies began to reach the United States in substantial quantities, easing the desperate shortages that had hampered American forces since the beginning of the war.
When the British resumed active campaigning in the summer of 1777, they aimed once more to suppress armed resistance before France entered the war. But they were unable to overcome the challenges of coordinating widely separated forces or maintaining effective communications between them. A large army marched south from Canada under the command of General John Burgoyne. Patriot forces hampered Burgoyne’s advance, defeated detachments sent out to collect supplies and then managed to fight Burgoyne to a standstill at Saratoga, New York. Far from his base, his supplies dwindling and his hope of support from British troops in New York vanishing, Burgoyne surrendered in October 1777.
Meanwhile General Sir William Howe, commanding the British army in New York City, took most of that army by sea up the Chesapeake Bay and marched on Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, from the south. Washington brought the Continental Army south to meet Howe, but was beaten at Brandywine, southwest of the city. After two weeks of maneuvering the British took Philadelphia without another major fight and beat back a surprise attack by Washington at the Battle of Germantown.
The armies went into winter quarters—Howe in Philadelphia and Washington at Valley Forge, outside the city but close enough to serve as a base to prevent the British from collecting forage and food from the rich farming region west of Philadelphia. Before the campaigns began in the summer of 1778, the French and Americans concluded an alliance. Howe’s campaign to suppress the rebellion before France entered the war had failed. He was replaced as commander of the British army in America by General Sir Henry Clinton, who evacuated Philadelphia in June and marched for New York City. Washington fell on his rear at Monmouth Court House in central New Jersey and the two armies fought one another to exhaustion. After nightfall the British retreated continued. Once in New York City, Clinton detached troops to assist with the defense of the British West Indies. The British abandoned active operations in the north.
The War for the South
Although their efforts to crush the rebellion in the north had failed, the British ministry and the British army held out hope that southern Loyalists would flock to the king’s standard if they mounted an invasion of the South. The British took Savannah in 1779 and beat back a clumsy American and French attempt to recover the city in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In 1780 Clinton brought a large part of his army south and laid siege to Charleston. The city fell in May, and Clinton captured most of the Continental troops south of the Potomac. Clinton turned the army over to Lord Cornwallis and sailed back to New York.
Clinton expected Cornwallis to reclaim the Carolinas and Georgia for the crown, but reducing the interior to obedience proved impossible. Cornwallis crushed a hastily assembled army under General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden, but thereafter the British occupation of the backcountry proceeded slowly. The British and their Loyalist auxiliaries inflamed patriot sentiment with aggressive demands for obedience. Riflemen from the region west of the Appalachians, from what is now Tennessee, marched east and destroyed a large detachment of British and Loyalist troops at King’s Mountain in November 1780. Cornwallis, concerned for his flanks, moved into North Carolina, where he was confronted by another makeshift army under the command of Nathanael Greene—sent south by Washington to blunt the British march north.
King’s Mountain is a simple battle and an exciting one to discuss in the classroom. The antagonists were nearly all Americans. British major Patrick Ferguson commanded a force consisting mainly of Loyalists. Their attackers were backcountry militiamen, mostly armed with rifles. They surrounded the British camp at the top of King’s Mountain, a high hill to the east of the Blue Ridge where Ferguson had taken refuge. The backwoodsmen proceeded methodically up the mountain, seeking cover as they hemmed in Ferguson’s troops. The battle ended with most of the British side dead, wounded or captured.
After weeks of maneuver, Greene and Cornwallis met at Guilford Court House. Greene’s army punished the British severely before withdrawing. The British won the field, but lost men they could not replace. The victorious Cornwallis marched to the coast at Wilmington, North Carolina, to plan his next step. Unable to wrest the southern interior from partisans like Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens, or to defeat Greene decisively, Cornwallis decided to march into Virginia in the spring of 1781 in an effort to knock it out of the war. Greene decided not to follow and launched a campaign to reclaim South Carolina while Cornwallis campaigned in Virginia.
A small Continental Army under the marquis de Lafayette opposed Cornwallis, but was not large enough to check the British army’s movement. Cornwallis sought to destroy Virginia’s capacity to support the war, but ultimately the size of the state overwhelmed him. Cornwallis retreated to the coast at Yorktown, Lafayette following cautiously after him. Washington recognized this as his chance. Securing the cooperation of the French army under General Rochambeau, which had arrived in 1780, Washington made a daring decision to march swiftly south and force Cornwallis to surrender. With the decisive assistance of a French fleet, which beat back the British navy and sealed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Washington and Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis, compelling his surrender in the Siege of Yorktown.
The capture of Cornwallis marked an end to his campaign to reduce the South to obedience. The British, their options drying up, decided to negotiate for peace. On the sea, the French and Spanish navies had joined American privateers in attacking British supply ships, and they were threatening Britain’s highly valuable possessions in the Caribbean. The war dragged on in a desultory way through 1782, but it was clear that the British effort to reduce the South had failed as decisively as their effort to subdue the rebellion in the north. Britain abandoned the war and agreed to peace terms recognizing American independence.