A Day of Independence: A Short History
Red, White, and Blue. Hamburgers and Hotdogs. Cookouts and Fireworks. These items all represent pastimes held on the birthday of the United States, July 4th. While many of us get caught up in the rush of the fun, we often forget the true meaning of the day. It is the day our nation declared its independence from the British Empire. But this wasn’t a normal declaration, no, this was a drawn-up resolution declaring the union of 13 Colonies and their separation from a monarch that was thousands of miles away. However, there was an issue. The men voting in the 2nd Continental Congress may have declared the freedom of the nation, but they had not yet stricken the British from the continent. While a revolution had started in 1775 at the towns of Lexington and Concord, the support for such an endeavor was waning. Many, including some of those in attendance at the Pennsylvania State House, thought a conflict might attract King Georgia’s attention to their grievances and a reconciliation would be made, keeping the Colonies under British rule. Even after the Declaration was distributed and read across the Colonies, people still hoped for peace that kept them in the possession of the Empire. The colonists were split. There were those that were in favor of creating an independent nation, those who abstained and relegated their lives to subsistence living, and others who sided with the crown, staying loyal to their home nation. On this Independence Day, I offer a very brief history of the war, perhaps reminding people of the struggles that our nation went through just to begin. More importantly, I hope this exercise prompts people to examine the forging of our nation. Many lessons could be gleaned with such a study, and those lessons can give context to our daily lives.
Many know of the “Shot Heard Around the World” (a line penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his work Concord Hymn). It represents the opening skirmish in what would become a War for Independence. How the British and the Colonists matured to this point requires a historical deep dive that includes events such as the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the Navigation Act, the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Intolerable Acts. That is out of the scope of this article, however they are dually important to understanding our history. The skirmish proved to the colonists that they could stand up against British regulars, although, this inference was short-sighted. The newly emboldened Americans next laid siege to Boston, attempting to strike with momentum on their side. Unfortunately, the British position was strong, especially after reinforcement. The American army was outnumbered and after repetitive assault at Breeds and Bunker Hill, the Continentals retreated. It was the first major battle of the war and even though the British suffered over 1,000 casualties, they still claimed victory. The British possessed a professional army, the Patriots did not. The Continentals fended off several waves of British infantry, but the British’s discipline carried the day. The Battle of Bunker Hill sent a message to the British Government, and they responded. The Empire was officially at war.
Early Years: 1776-1777
Early on, the war went rather well for the Patriots, they were able to repulse the British in several battles. However, this momentum was misleading. The British were not yet at full strength. By August of 1776, the British under the leadership of General Howe, sailed into New York harbor with hundreds of ships and nearly 32,000 Redcoats. The Patriots were in danger. In the following months, the British took control of New York City and attempted a southern invasion. Luckily, new forts protected the port city of Charleston, South Carolina. The defense turned away the attack, leaving the South free from invasion for another three years. Shortly after, British forces in New York under the command of Hessian General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen attacked and captured Fort Washington. Several days later, Fort Lee was abandoned. The Hudson was now under British control. 1776 concluded with the magnificent battle of Trenton. This battle drew inspiration for the famous Emanuel Leutze oil painting of Washington kneeling at the bow of a boat while crossing the Delaware. The attack occurred on Christmas night. As a brigade of Hessian mercenaries slumbered, the Continentals pounced. With wet gunpowder, the Continentals charged with bayonets fixed to their rifle’s muzzle. Taken by surprise, the Hessians surrendered. The Battle of Trenton was a great victory. Washington, going against European tactical doctrine, had completed a large-scale operation in winter and had gained complete surprise.
The turning of the year brought promise back to the Cause. 1777 saw continued success for the Patriots. British General Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates in his attempt to rid New York and the surrounding countryside from the rebels. Further south, General Howe completed a successful invasion and attack on the Capital city of Philadelphia. Unfortunately for him, Washington and his army had escaped, again stymieing the true goal of Howe’s mission, annihilation of the Continental Army. 1777 once again gave the Patriots renewed hope that their rag-tag army could go toe-to-toe with British regulars, so much so that the French agreed to an alliance in favor of the cause. The French alliance bolstered confidence and reignited the lust for independence.
The Dark Years: 1778-1780
The years that followed, however, were not as successful. That winter, Washington’s Army hunkered down at Valley Forge, a brutal winter for sure, that witnessed shortcomings of supplies and large numbers of desertion as enlistment contracts expired and men headed home. The saving grace was an unknown Prussian drillmaster, the Baron de Steuben. The Baron, having been raised in the military ideology of the most admired army in Europe brought something Washington’s army desperately needed, discipline. That trait was instilled through rigorous drill that whipped the army into something that resembled professional. The Baron might be one of the most important figures of the War. Not only did he train the army, but he wrote the first formal book on military doctrine to be accepted by the new nation.
As winter thawed to Spring, Washington led his army in the sweltering heat to attack the British rearguard as they abandoned Philadelphia in favor of their position in New York. At Monmouth, New Jersey, the Continentals made their stand. At first, the attack was successful, but the British under the command of General Henry Clinton reversed position and counterattacked. Leading Washington’s forward units was General Charles Lee. Lee, a former officer in the British military, held high esteem for his former employer. While he believed in the cause, he did not believe in the Continental Army. He thought them to be no match against professionals. As such, at the British reversed position, Lee ordered a retreat. Washington, boiling in frustration, dismissed Lee from his command. Fortunately, the Continentals were able to reform the line and stave off the attack. In the end, the Battle of Monmouth was a draw. It was also the last time Washington would lead his army that far north. The campaigns of 1778 ended as quickly as they started with both sides resuming static positions.
1779 and 1780 were not as intense as previous years. Much of the time was spent fortifying positions, recruiting for the regular army, and waiting for the French. The French promise of reinforcement was thought to be the turning point of the war. However, they had yet to arrive. The American coastline was blockaded by the British Navy, their crown jewel. The British Navy outnumbered and was superior to their French counterpart. The French were cautious in their approach, too much so for the Americans who eagerly awaited. In the Spring of 1780, Clinton, along with General Lord Cornwallis attacked Charleston, South Carolina, this time capturing the city. Clinton retreated to New York, yielding command of his southern forces to Cornwallis. Cornwallis then laid waste to the Continental Army under Gates at the Battle of Camden. The British had sandwiched the rebels.
One point that is often forgotten is by 1780, the war had gone global. France was not the only nation to ally itself with America. In 1779 Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez with France agreeing to support the French war against Britain (via the Revolutionary War) followed by the Dutch in 1780. While the war was escalating in the colonies, the British diverted men, and resources to the protection of their interests in the West Indies. They were threatened by the newly formed alliances, who desired British possessions. The British didn’t want to lose the American colonies, but they couldn’t lose their highly profitable sugar plantations.
Darkest Before Dawn: Winter-Spring, 1781
By Spring of 1781, British Generals Clinton and Cornwallis maintained footholds in New York and the Carolinas, respectively. At the same time, former Continental Army commander, Benedict Arnold, now fighting for the Redcoats, floated up the James River with a small force, securing a foothold in Virginia. The cause was fading. Up to this point, the war ebbed and flowed with the current standings favoring the British. But something unexpected happened, the British faltered. The British generalship was filled with too many egos, each vying for glory to further secure their titleship. Lack of communication, and a strange lack of adherence to orders led to their downfall. Perhaps it was a superiority complex, that they felt their armies were vastly superior to that of Washington’s, which, for the large part, was true. But the difference was those fighting for the Cause were fighting for their land, their families, and ultimately freedom from a government a world away. The British were only fighting for glory. Historian Paul Lockhart described this in The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben, and the Making of the American Army, when describing the soldiers involved: the Americans were fighting as citizens, while the British were fighting as subjects. A very important delineation.
Continental General Nathaniel Greene was sent to the South to bolster the army and fend off Cornwallis’s foothold. Early on in his command, he ordered 1,000 men under Daniel Morgan to threaten British supply lines. In January of 1781, a British attachment of 1,100 men under Banastre Tarleton attacked Morgan’s men. Tarleton, an up-and-coming officer, was embarrassed by Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. Only Tarleton and 175 others escaped. In an emotional decision, Cornwallis demanded revenge and sought out Greene’s army. They met at the Battle of Guilford’s Court House. Cornwallis’s veteran army was vastly outnumbered. His 1,900 men were going up against a force of 4,300. However, Greene’s force was primarily made up of Militia. Cornwallis felt that his veteran army could succeed over any number of rebels. In the clash, Cornwallis’s army held and pushed Greene’s force into retreat, but at a dear price—nearly 500 casualties. In desperate need of aid, Cornwallis’s army entered Virginia with the goal to take command of British forces in the theatre and to receive reinforcement from Clinton in New York. He awaited at the port city of Yorktown. However, aid would never come.
Victory Comes: Summer-Winter, 1781
Washington desperately wanted to retake New York. He and his army of 10,000 troops along with an additional 4,000 French under the command of General Rochambeau were ready for battle. All Washington needed was the French fleet under Admiral De Grasse. Unfortunately for Washington, De Grasse declined, he was going to Yorktown. De Grasse wanted to blockade Cornwallis, cutting off his retreat. Washington agreed. The future president next duped Clinton into thinking he was readying for a siege of New York, instead Washington quickly moved his army south. By the time Clinton realized Washington’s intensions, it was too late. When Washington reached the outskirts of the city, he received news that De Grasse had defeated the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. Now with a combined force of 17,000 men, Washington’s army laid siege to a trapped Cornwallis. On October 19, Cornwallis marched his army out to surrender.
The Fall of Empire: 1782-1783
The Autumn of 1781 saw the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. The titular defeat of the British that ultimately led to the Treaty of Paris. Soon after Cornwallis’s surrender, Clinton resigned his commission. 1782 saw a continuation of posturing. However, the French Naval fleet suffered a major loss at the Battle of the Saintes, ensuring continued British dominance in the West Indies. No matter, the British were done with their American colonies. Unrest at home coupled with mounting debt ushered in renewed diplomatic discussion. Finally, on the eighth anniversary of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1783, the Proclamation for the Cessation of Hostilities was issued. In September, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the conflict, and recognizing the United States as an independent nation.
Eight years of endured hardship to get to this point, including the seven that followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There were many heroes of the war, too many to count. These include the likes of George Washington, Horatio Gates, Nathaniel Greene, Daniel Morgan, Francis Marion, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Baron de Steuben, and the thousands of citizen soldiers who took up arms in their state militias or joined the regular army. Although the war was over, it was just the beginning. A government needed to be built—more than once—and an economy needed resuscitated.
This exercise into a short history of the Revolutionary War is just that, short. Many fields of battle were overlooked, many theaters ignored, and many brilliant leaders absent. On this Independence Day, the goal of this article was to remind you of the history of the conflict and the struggle to realize victory. Because without it, we as citizens of the United States of America could not relish in the spoils and luxuries of today.