1. Battles of Lexington & Concord
Small towns outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Lexington and Concord were the scenes for the first battles of the Revolutionary War. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder if you know that Minutemen were among the American militiamen who fought at Lexington and Concord.
2. Battle of Bunker Hill
Bunker Hill is the name given to the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, fought just outside Boston. The British won the battle, but suffered heavy losses driving the Americans from the field. The battle demonstrated that the British could not take the American forces lightly. You know more than the minimum if you are aware that the battle was actually fought on Breed’s Hill, not nearby Bunker Hill.
3. Crossing of the Delaware
In the dead of winter, George Washington led a ragged, cold and hungry army across the icy Delaware River to attack and defeat the enemy at Trenton, New Jersey, and give hope to the American cause. The event was immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Although Leutze took liberties with the scene, the painting is the most famous of all American historical paintings. A culturally literate American may not be able to name the artist, but recognizes the painting instantly.
The American victory at Saratoga, New York, led to the surrender of a British army and to an alliance between the United States and France. You know more than the minimum if you know that the victorious general was Horatio Gates and the defeated British general was John Burgoyne, and that Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan were among the American heroes.
5. Valley Forge
George Washington’s army camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, through one of the most difficult winters of the Revolution. Training there made the army a more effective force. The Valley Forge encampment is an event that has slipped dramatically in popular memory. Many Americans who can identify other people, places and events on the list with ease think that Valley Forge was the scene of a battle, rather than a hard winter encampment during which General von Steuben drilled the Continental Army into a much more effective force.
6. Battle of Monmouth
The Battle of Monmouth was the largest pitched battle of the Revolutionary War, proving that American troops, when effectively led, could face British regulars in the open field and fight them to a standstill. Americans once recognized Monmouth as the name of the battle in which an artilleryman’s wife known as Molly Pitcher—so called because she usually carried water to American soldiers—took her husband’s place on a gun crew when he was wounded.
7. Battle of King’s Mountain
The British captured Charleston in the summer of 1780 and soon took control of the South Carolina interior. Then in November, backcountry riflemen, many of whom lived west of the Appalachians in what later became east Tennessee, attacked British troops marching toward North Carolina and killed, wounded or captured the entire force. The victory at King’s Mountain restored the morale of southern patriots and revived hope of driving the British army under Lord Cornwallis out of the Carolina interior.
8. Battle of Guilford Court House
Guilford Court House is the least-known battle on the list, even though it was one of the most important battles of the war. It blunted the British effort to conquer the South, and forced Lord Cornwallis to withdraw the coast. Thereafter he led his army north to Virginia and surrender at Yorktown, while Greene redeemed the South from British occupation.
9. Siege of Yorktown
Yorktown, Virginia, was the scene of the climactic victory of the Revolutionary War, in which a combined American and French army under the command of George Washington forced the surrender of a British army commanded by Lord Cornwallis. You know more than the minimum if you are aware that the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse sealed the fate of Cornwallis by defeating the British in the naval Battle of the Chesapeake, driving off the British vessels sent to rescue Cornwallis and his army.
10. Benedict Arnold
The greatest traitor in American history, Benedict Arnold was an American general who changed sides, defecting to the British and serving as a British general during the last years of the war. His name is synonymous with treason. You are better informed if you know that he was a brave and skillful soldier and a hero of the American victory at Saratoga, and that in connection with his treason he plotted (unsuccessfully) to surrender West Point to the British.
11. Lord Cornwallis
Charles, Lord Cornwallis, was the commander of the British army forced to surrender at Yorktown, the last major engagement of the Revolutionary War. You know more than the minimum if you know that Cornwallis was a skillful general who had distinguished himself earlier in the war, and that after the war he was a success as colonial governor-general of India.
12. King George III
George III was king of England throughout the American Revolution.
13. Admiral de Grasse
Admiral François, comte de Grasse, is perhaps the least-known figure on this list, but our committee felt strongly that it was impossible to understand the war without some sense of the importance of French naval power in securing American independence. His victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake was one of the most important events of the war.
14. Nathanael Greene
Nathanael Greene was one of Washington’s most trusted generals and the victor of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas and Georgia. Greene was once much better known than he is today—note the number of Greene counties and Greenevilles on a map of the United States. His victory in the Carolinas was one of the greatest feats in American military history. The war in the South has mostly slipped from national memory, eclipsed by the later events of the Civil War. The names of Carolina revolutionaries William Moultrie, Andrew Pickens and above all, the “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, were once well known.
15. Nathan Hale
Before being hanged by the British as a spy, Nathan Hale uttered the immortal words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” The fading reputation of Nathan Hale is emblematic of the eroding popular awareness of the Revolutionary War. Hale was once regarded as the embodiment of American patriotism.
16. John Paul Jones
Captain John Paul Jones was the chief American naval hero of the Revolutionary War. An earlier generation of Americans remembered his words, shouted at the height of a naval battle with a British warship. When asked to surrender his sinking ship, Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones and his crew then boarded the British warship and made it their own.
17. Henry Knox
Henry Knox was one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. You are better informed if you know that Knox was Washington’s chief of artillery, a position he earned by dragging more than fifty artillery pieces from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York through the snows of a New England winter to the American army outside Boston, one of the epic feats in American military history. The names of Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee, testify to his reputation in an earlier time.
18. Francis Marion
Francis Marion led resistance to the British in the Carolina backcountry. Give yourself a pat on your back if you identify Marion as the “Swamp Fox,” as schoolchildren all over the United States did in the nineteenth century. Marion of South Carolina and Israel Putnam of Connecticut were once widely recognized as folk heroes.
19. Marquis de Lafayette
The marquis de Lafayette was a young French aristocrat who volunteered for service in the American army and became one of the most successful and celebrated generals of the war. Like many others, Lafayette’s place in popular memory has declined, though young people would probably identify with him. A major general at nineteen (still the youngest in our history), Lafayette was intensely idealistic.
20. George Rogers Clark
George Rogers Clark conquered the Old Northwest from the British. Like Francis Marion, Clark was once widely known, especially in the Midwest. While a colonel in his twenties, Clark captured the posts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes from the British, helping to ensure that what became the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois would be controlled by the United States.
21. King Louis XVI
Louis XVI was the king of France throughout the American Revolution, and made the critical decision to ally his nation with the Americans. King Louis XVI is now better known in the United States for having been overthrown and executed by revolutionaries in his own country. Americans do not generally appreciate the role he played in securing their national independence.
22. Paul Revere
Paul Revere was a leader of the revolutionary movement in Boston and rode to warn the farmers of Massachusetts that British regulars were on the march to Lexington and Concord. Longfellow’s poem “The Ride of Paul Revere” is no longer recited in elementary school classrooms as it once was, but Revere’s name is still readily associated with the Revolutionary War.
23. General Rochambeau
General Rochambeau was the commander of the French army sent to the aid of Washington and the American revolutionaries. He cooperated effectively with Washington and was instrumental in the victory at Yorktown. Rochambeau’s name is more often recognized than that of Admiral de Grasse, but disappointingly few Americans associate General Rochambeau with the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War.
24. Baron Steuben
Wilhelm, Baron Steuben was a Prussian officer who volunteered for service in the American army and was made a general. A demanding drillmaster, he brought discipline and order to Washington’s army.
25. George Washington
George Washington, a Virginia planter, was the commander-in-chief of the American army and the Revolutionary War’s greatest hero. After the war he returned to his home, Mount Vernon, but reluctantly agreed to come out of retirement to serve as first president of the United States. He is one of history’s greatest leaders, justly famed for his honesty, unwavering determination, courage and deep commitment to his country.