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date: 25 March 2017

A Military History of the American Revolution, 1754–1783

Summary and Keywords

The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened.

The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.

Keywords: Seven Years’ War, War of American Independence, American Revolution, colonies, army, navy

The subject addressed here is no doubt broadly familiar to anyone who knows anything about the American Revolution. Its military history is usually assumed to have begun on April 19, 1775, when Massachusetts militiamen and British regulars clashed on Lexington Green. Everyone knows, furthermore, that the War of Independence, or Revolutionary War, ended with American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781, with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s British army. This article, by focusing on the British perspective, challenges general understanding in a number of important respects. It argues that the military history of the Revolution began not in 1775, or even in 1763, when the Seven Years’ War concluded and British governments felt obliged to adopt new policies for the colonies, but in 1754, with the Seven Years’ War’s first clashes in the Ohio Valley. While that conflict certainly did not make the Revolution inevitable, it created the conditions that made some form of confrontation between Britain and its North American colonies likely.

More controversially, the article suggests that the Americans were not the clear-cut victors of the War of Independence that popular imagination—in both the United States and Britain—believes. If the British lost, they were defeated not by the Americans alone, but by the efforts of the Americans and their European allies, especially the French, and as a result partly of events far from America itself. But even British defeat cannot be accepted as an adequate description of the outcome. The British emerged from the wider war that ended in 1783 much stronger than looked possible in the months immediately following Yorktown. And if from 1776 the war was fought by the Americans to secure their independence, and by the British to keep the colonists in their orbit, then we might legitimately question whether the British truly lost. For many years after 1783, the United States, though nominally independent in a political sense, remained in an essentially dependent relationship with Britain.

The Lessons of the Seven Years’ War

The Anglo-French conflict that began in the Ohio Valley in 1754 can be seen as the vital preliminary to the eventual breakdown of relations between Britain and its North American colonies. The importance of the Seven Years’ War lay not in the beginnings of American alienation from Britain, as some historians suggest,1 but in the British perception that the colonists had not performed well in the long struggle against the French. American dissatisfaction with the haughty manner of regular British army officers, and alarm at the predatory behavior of rank and file British soldiers, obvious in the first, and distinctly unsuccessful phase of the war, receded into the background during its second, much more successful phase from 1758. When Montreal surrendered and New France fell in 1760, Americans celebrated a great triumph of imperial partnership, and looked forward to metropolitan acknowledgement of their part in the great victory. The colonists had never been prouder of their Britishness.2

For the British army in North America, on the other hand, the tensions of the first part of the conflict, when it had proved very difficult to persuade some of the colonies to commit resources to the war, remained fresh in the memory. It took major British concessions on finance in 1757–1758 to persuade many of the colonial assemblies to mobilize more extensively; roughly half the costs of raising local soldiers was from that point met by the Westminster Parliament rather than the colonial legislatures.3 To many Britons, the need for these concessions only served to amplify the point that the Americans had shown great reluctance to play their part in vanquishing the French. In the interests of harmony, British officers usually kept their low opinion of the colonial contribution from the Americans, but in their private diaries and journals, and in letters to relatives and friends, they showed little restraint in criticizing American reluctance to serve, ineffectiveness as soldiers, and marked tendency to think provincially, rather than in terms of the greater good.4 In British eyes, the conflict in North America had been won despite the colonists, not because of their willingness from 1758 to mobilize large bodies of local troops to reinforce the regular army.

Negative British views of the American contribution during the Seven Years’ War had important consequences. In the long term, they helped to convince British politicians in 1774–1775, on the eve of armed conflict with the colonies, that Americans lacked the stomach to fight and would not, if the worst came to the worst, offer effective resistance to the use of military force to compel obedience to British authority. Misplaced confidence might well have encouraged British politicians to favor coercion over conciliation in the vital months before the War of Independence began.5 Only after April 19, 1775, when British troops found themselves obliged to retreat before an angry array of New England militiamen, did the folly of underestimating the Americans become apparent to many Britons. As General Gage reported after the bloody victory of his troops at the battle of Bunker Hill in June, “These People Shew a Spirit and Conduct against us, they never shewed against the French, and everybody has Judged of them from their former Appearance, and behaviour, when joined with the Kings Forces in the last War; which has led many into great mistakes.”6 In the shorter term, British contempt for colonial military prowess may well have contributed to the fateful decision, taken in London during the closing stages of the Seven Years’ War, to base a regular peacetime force in North America.

A Standing Army for America

British ministers’ motives for establishing a permanent British army in North America remain unclear.7 No single source reveals the reasoning behind the decision. But we can surmise that British perceptions of poor colonial fighting ability provide only part of the explanation. Though British politicians later claimed that the army was intended to protect the Americans, that claim was made primarily to justify the colonists’ contributing to the costs of maintaining the British garrison.8 The troops stationed on the frontier, policing the so-called Proclamation line of 1763, sought to protect the native peoples of the inland wilderness from the incursions of settlers, rather than the other way round. More importantly, for the government in London the army in America formed a strategic reserve of troops, which could be maintained without imposing a significant new burden on British taxpayers. The model here was the Irish garrison, some twelve thousand strong, maintained by Irish taxes in time of peace, but usually redeployed in time of war to imperial or European theaters of operation.9 In the event of another war with France or Spain, we can assume that much of the army in America would have been sent to the Caribbean or Central America; during the crisis over the Falkland Islands in 1770–1771, General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of the forces in North America, received orders to prepare his regiments for service against Spanish America.10 However, the army’s immediate purpose, as its initial deployments suggest, was to garrison the conquered territories, particularly the new colonies of Quebec (the former New France) and East and West Florida, acquired in 1763 from Spain. In the Quebec colony, where a significant Francophone Catholic population remained, the British garrison acted as an army of occupation.

Parliamentary taxes levied on the Americans to pay for some of the costs of the army in the colonies provoked enormous resistance. George Grenville’s Stamp Act of 1765, in particular, encouraged the different provinces to put aside their local and particular interests and unite to try to fend off a pervasive British fiscal threat. Americans based their resistance mainly on the rights they shared with Britons in Britain not to be taxed without their own consent, rights that they traced back to Magna Carta. But the colonists questioned not only the constitutional validity of parliamentary taxes, but also the need for the army which was the occasion of the taxes. Traditional animosity to permanent, professional military forces had lost some of its purchase in England as a result of the victories of the Seven Years’ War, but it remained deeply embedded in colonial thinking. Despotic rulers used standing armies to coerce their subjects; free peoples relied for their defense on the amateur efforts of their citizens. Several colonial legislatures pointed to their willingness to raise soldiers temporarily in time of emergency, as they had done in the recently concluded Seven Years’ War and earlier colonial conflicts. They saw no necessity for a permanent British garrison, especially now that the French threat had been removed.11

Even so, the army met with much less hostility than might have been expected. In some respects, indeed, the British garrison became Americanized.12 More than a few of its officers married colonial women; some acquired land in America. Members of elite colonial families became army officers; more humble Americans joined the rank and file. In most places, harmonious relations continued even when, in 1768, the government in London decided to save money by redeploying many of the units stationed in frontier forts to the settled areas, where they could be supplied with foodstuffs more cheaply. Indeed, the opportunities to sell goods and services to the army may well have overcome local concerns about the presence of the military. By this stage, too, British taxation of the colonies was less explicitly about supporting the army. In 1767, Charles Townshend, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced new colonial import duties; his intention was to use the proceeds to pay the salaries of crown officials in America to free them from dependence on their local assemblies. Townshend envisaged his scheme as a way of reforming colonial government that would make the raising of further taxes in America easier in the future; these further taxes would be used to pay for the army.13 Opposition to his duties, however, focused on the immediate threat to the control of civil salaries by the elected assemblies, and so the army and its finances receded into the background.

In a few particular locations, however, tensions between soldiers and inhabitants led to serious incidents. Troops sent to Boston in 1768 to support the customs service met with a frosty reception; wild talk about resisting the landing of the soldiers came to nothing, but the atmosphere became increasingly edgy. In a town founded by Puritans, hostility to soldiers as agents of moral subversion found expression in criticisms of the redcoats’ drinking, gambling, and womanizing. After months of friction, soldiers opened fire on a threatening crowd in March 1770, an event that quickly became known as the “Boston Massacre.” Though anti–standing army sentiment was particularly strong in Boston, and received a boost thanks to the Massacre, the chief ingredient in local hostility seems to have been the soldiers’ practice of obtaining part-time work in the town, often at well below the prevailing wage rates.14 At New York City, the economic competition provided by a smaller force of troops caused similar hostility among laborers and artisans.15

Resentment at the presence of significant numbers of troops in Boston increased as the crisis in relations between the colonies and Britain deteriorated. Lord North’s government decided to punish Boston for its destruction in December 1773 of East India Company tea that was liable to pay the Townshend duty. Besides piloting through Parliament a legislative assault on Massachusetts, North appointed General Gage as the new governor of the colony and reinforced the garrison of Boston. That the new governor was a military man, with a growing number of troops at his disposal, did nothing to reduce local fears that the government in London was set on establishing a despotic regime. The military build-up inevitably provoked a local response. Massachusetts and its New England neighbors prepared to defend themselves. Militiamen started to drill and stockpile arms and ammunition. From the autumn of 1774 an armed confrontation seemed likely, even inevitable. That December a British officer wrote home that “It is thought by every body here, that we shall be obliged to take the field early next Spring, as the people in general are very enraged against some of the late proceedings of parliament and some determined to defend what they call their Liberties, to the last Extremity.”16

Parliamentary Authority and Naval Power

American resistance to parliamentary taxation need not have eventuated in war. That a series of constitutional confrontations ended in armed conflict owed as much to the reluctance of ministers, MPs, and peers in London to give ground as to the Americans’ determination to resist. All British governments of the period 1763–1775, whatever their differences, tried to raise taxes in America, initially to pay directly for the army, and then to reform colonial government as a means to prepare the ground for further taxes to pay for the army. The determination of British politicians to keep taxing had an important financial dimension, of course; the costs of imperial defense were enormous by contemporary standards, and tax resistance in Britain itself made a colonial contribution seem highly desirable. As Thomas Whately, Grenville’s secretary to the treasury, wrote in 1764, “burthened as this Country is with Debt and with Expence, some Attention must be had to immediate Revenue, and the Colonies must contribute their Share.”17 British persistence can also be explained in terms of pride; the Revolution was, in a sense, a clash of institutional egos, with Westminster and the colonial assemblies digging in to defend what they conceived as their rights. But another reason for British reluctance to abandon attempts to tax America was surely anxiety about British naval power. If Americans, and particularly New Englanders, worried about the British army, British politicians worried about the Royal Navy.18

Every time Parliament debated concessions to the Americans, MPs and peers rose to their feet to argue that any seeming acknowledgement that they had no right to tax the colonies would only lead to American resistance to other forms of parliamentary legislation. Many made clear that what concerned them was that the colonists would go on to deny that Parliament had the right to regulate their overseas trade. British politicians regarded the 17th-century Navigation Acts as the basis of national prosperity and national power. The acts not only gave the British economy first call on certain important colonial exports, such as tobacco and sugar, but also effectively made the colonies a captive market for British manufactures. The duties collected on colonial imports into Britain added to the state’s revenues. But perhaps most importantly, the Navigation Acts—or rather the 1660 Act, to which MPs and peers regularly alluded—insisted on the carriage of all goods taken to and from the colonies on British ships, three-quarters of the crew of which were the crown’s subjects. The aim of these provisions was to ensure a ready reserve of trained maritime manpower, which could be conscripted into the Royal Navy in time of war. In the minds of most British politicians, the navy was the guarantor of national security; it prevented invasion of the home islands and it projected British power overseas. If it were weakened, Britain would surely slip into the ranks of the second- or even third-rate European powers.

Fears for the Royal Navy, then, fueled British politicians’ determination not to give ground to the Americans. To modern observers, their anxieties may seem ridiculous, or at least misplaced. The navy did not wither away once the Americans had secured their independence and the Navigation Acts no longer regulated the overseas commerce of the former colonies. Just as importantly, abundant evidence suggests that the colonists accepted parliamentary trade regulation, and were not trying to break free from the restraints of the Navigation Acts. As late as the autumn of 1774, the Continental Congress made clear the colonies’ willingness to respect the system created by British trade legislation.19 But British ministers, MPs, and peers worried incessantly about a threat to parliamentary regulation, and with it naval power. Ultimately, their determination to protect the navy was so strong that it led them to insist on American submission to parliamentary authority, and even to go to war to secure that objective. British obsession with the Royal Navy must therefore have a place in any military history of the coming of the American Revolution.20

The War for America

A few days after the opening shots in the War of Independence, Sir James Wright, the royal governor of Georgia, wrote to the secretary of state in London on the need for “Some of His Majestys Troops … in every Province,” not just to quell rebellious spirits, but to inculcate in the American population “that Veneration [of government] which is Proper and due.”21 Whether a military presence in every colony would have produced the results that Wright hoped to see must be doubtful; but we will never know, as Lord North’s ministry in London had decided to concentrate most of the British North American army in Boston to overawe Massachusetts. The policy of concentration was a complete failure; Massachusetts was not subdued, and, in the absence of strong British forces elsewhere, royal government rapidly collapsed in every other colony. Cooped up in Boston, and licking its wounds after the first clashes at Lexington and Concord, and its costly victory at Bunker Hill, Gage’s army was in no position to launch offensive operations. By the end of 1775, the British position in North America looked parlous indeed; even Quebec almost fell to the rebels’ newly constituted Continental army.

Yet, the following year, the British perhaps came closer than they ever would to winning the war in America. Lord George Germain, the new British secretary of state, oversaw the organization of a massive military effort, and assembled the largest army that any British government had ever sent abroad. British troops were reinforced by German auxiliary units. The government’s strategy envisaged a multipronged assault on the rebel colonies. Operations would begin in the south, where the reported strength of local loyalism could be tapped and the weakness created by a large slave population might be exploited. Once the southern campaign had been brought to a successful conclusion, the troops used there could be redeployed in the north, where they would reinforce the main army under General William Howe, Gage’s successor, which would be campaigning in lower New York. Howe would command the troops of the Boston garrison, who had been evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the spring, combined with further troops who had sailed from Europe. Meanwhile, the strongly reinforced British army in Canada would advance south, down the Lake Champlain–Hudson River corridor, to rendezvous with Howe’s army as it marched north.

At first, all did not go to plan. The southern loyalists rose prematurely, and were crushed by local rebel forces, before British troops could arrive to support them. The British attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, then ended in ignominious failure. The progress of the Canadian army also disappointed the expectations of the government in London. Led by General Guy Carleton, it made painfully slow work of expelling the Americans from Canada and then advancing south. The cautious Carleton finally decided that it was too late in the year to begin a proper siege of the fortress of Ticonderoga, which blocked his route into the rebel colonies, and so he withdrew his forces to winter quarters in Quebec. The American defenders of Ticonderoga could hardly believe their good fortune.

But in the lower Hudson, British progress seemed unstoppable. Howe’s army defeated George Washington’s Continentals on Long Island in late August and then took New York City. In November, the American garrison of Fort Washington, on the northern end of Manhattan Island, surrendered. A detachment from Howe’s army even captured Newport, Rhode Island, early in December, reestablishing a foothold in New England. Meanwhile, Washington’s disintegrating army fled across New Jersey, hotly pursued by Howe’s troops. In mid-December, Washington made it over the Delaware into Pennsylvania, and Howe, feeling that enough had been achieved, ordered his forces into quarters. Most British commentators understandably felt that the war was all but over.

Washington, however, would not acknowledge defeat. He boldly counterattacked over Christmas and January 1777, taking a Hessian detachment by surprise at Trenton and then bettering a British brigade at Princeton a few days later. Washington’s victories, though small in scale, had an enormously important impact on American morale. Hopes of sustaining American independence (declared before Howe began his New York campaign) revived, and the new Continental regiments that Congress had authorized began to recruit. British spirits, by contrast, drooped. The Hessians came in for much criticism from British officers, who could not disguise their disappointment that the war was not over, and that at least another campaign would be required to bring it to a successful conclusion. Howe also attracted hostile comments, from his subordinates and from ministers in London, who feared that his reluctance to go for the American jugular at various points in 1776 had allowed the rebellion to survive.

Even so, Howe remained in charge and the British campaign of 1777 followed the blueprint of 1776. True, the southern arm was abandoned, at least for the time being, and all effort was concentrated in the north. But as in 1776, an army was to advance south from Canada to link up with Howe’s main force moving north up the Hudson valley. But simple though the plan appeared, it soon unraveled. Howe became fixated with defeating Washington’s main army and capturing Philadelphia, the nominal capital of the United States. General John Burgoyne, who led the British invasion force descending on upper New York from Canada, found himself unsupported. By the time Burgoyne realized that he was confronted by an overwhelmingly large number of Continental troops and New England militiamen, Howe was busy campaigning in Pennsylvania. A small force in New York, under Howe’s second in command, General Sir Henry Clinton, attempted to advance up the Hudson to relieve the pressure on Burgoyne’s beleaguered army, but by this stage Burgoyne’s fate had been sealed. His route back to Canada cut off, Burgoyne opened negotiations and surrendered his army at Saratoga, New York, on October 17.

Burgoyne’s surrender was undoubtedly a turning point in the conflict. But even before this moment, the British faced a harder task than many historians acknowledge. The frequently invoked image of the War of Independence as a David and Goliath struggle, with the plucky Americans winning against overwhelming odds, should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism. True, the Americans had many problems to overcome, not least their lack of a permanent military force and their serious financial weakness. But they also possessed some important advantages. They were defending territory that they knew and could call on supplies and reinforcements from the substantial areas that they controlled. The British government, for its part, might have fared better if it had heeded the advice of some commentators and opted to subdue the rebellion by naval means alone. A blockade of trade would perhaps have allowed time for internal divisions in America to open up and the rebellion to collapse. But ministers in London, and the king even more so, favored a land war, partly on the basis that the decisive defeat of the rebel army would end resistance more quickly, but also because they felt an obligation to protect those Americans who remained loyal to the British crown—in the view of Germain, the majority of the inhabitants of the colonies. As a result of pursuing a land war, North and his colleagues left the army with the unenviable task of conquering the colonies in rebellion; British troops faced all the challenges of outsiders seeking to attack a strong central position. The distances separating their divided forces made proper coordination of military effort very difficult to pull off, as both the 1776 and 1777 campaigns revealed. Distance from home mattered, too. Directing the war from London was all but impossible, as Germain readily understood. But arguably he and his ministerial colleagues took delegation of responsibility too far, and failed to provide direction when it was most needed; in retrospect, we can see that in 1777 Howe should have been given less latitude to progressively water down his commitment to the agreed strategy. We should also note that the British army relied on supplies carried across three thousand miles of ocean, and though British generals tried to strengthen their forces with local manpower, reinforcements of regular troops could be secured only by using the same very long Atlantic supply route.

British attempts to field a large army to crush the rebellion, while militarily understandable, may have made it more difficult to win the crucial battle for American hearts and minds. The German auxiliaries attracted adverse comments from Americans even before they arrived; the fact that they came from states with authoritarian governments only added to the impression that North’s ministry wanted to establish a despotic system in North America. Once across the Atlantic, the German troops rapidly established a reputation for pillaging friend and foe alike. The British army’s other allies or auxiliaries provoked similar ill-feeling. The loyalists in the settler population, in whom the British placed much faith, proved a doubtful asset. Often reluctant to take up arms, when they did so, many of them used the opportunity to settle old scores, hampering the chances of pacification. More importantly, the British use of Native peoples rekindled historic memories of bloody attacks on the frontier orchestrated by the French in earlier wars, and so added to the reputation of the British as the inheritors of all the ills associated with the old enemy. That Burgoyne’s army had an Indian contingent helps to explain the willingness of so many New England militiamen to turn out to oppose him. In the south, meanwhile, the way the British seemed to toy with liberating slaves—Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to all enslaved people who came to help him defend his authority—may well have similarly helped to mobilize large numbers of whites on the side of the Revolution.

The challenge facing the British government before Saratoga became much greater after Burgoyne’s surrender. The Americans gained enormously in confidence. They had compelled the surrender of a major British field army; never again would the redcoats seem such a formidable and superior enemy. British morale correspondingly fell; two years of substantial effort had led to very limited success, and as every campaign passed, the Americans gained in experience and became more difficult to beat. As the recriminations began, Howe resigned. But the real blow for North and his colleagues was the effect of Saratoga on the French government. Louis XVI’s ministers had been offering the Americans covert aid, in the form principally of money and weapons, from the beginning of the war. In the spring of 1776, the French government finally decided to prepare for a full military intervention. The Declaration of Independence overcame remaining doubts in Paris, convincing Louis’s ministers that the Americans were in earnest, and would not be returning to the British fold. Saratoga encouraged them to bring forward their plans and enter the war the following spring. Lord North’s government feared as much from the moment news arrived in London of Burgoyne’s surrender. The cabinet in London began to plan for an entirely different kind of war, one that would no longer be simply about America, but would determine whether the British state was to retain the other parts of its global empire.

The World War

The prospect of French intervention, possibly with Spanish support, led Lord North’s government in London to consider radical changes to the war in America. Ministers may even have contemplated the option of abandoning the conflict in the former colonies, and concentrating on the challenge posed by a Bourbon war—an option that would have won the support of the parliamentary opposition and probably have united the country. But the government decided to fight on in America, albeit with more limited objectives. A sense of obligation to the loyalists partly explains this decision; but probably more important was the wish to retain enough of a presence on the mainland to sustain the Caribbean islands, where an economy based on sugar monoculture required the import of most foodstuffs and other essential supplies. A southern strategy fulfilled both objectives: it was in the south that loyalism was assumed to be particularly strong, and to Germain Georgia and South Carolina appeared well placed to provision the British West Indies.22

For the British, however, the war in America now became one of many theaters of operation, and by no means the most important. Home defense took priority; in 1778, when the French appeared to pose a threat to southern England and Ireland, troops and ships in North America were ordered back to Britain. From 1779, when the Spanish entered the war as French allies, the threat of invasion of Britain or Ireland became still greater, as the French and Spanish navies combined outnumbered the Royal Navy. For a time in the summer of 1779 the allied fleet controlled the Channel, and looked poised to land troops in southwestern or southern England. The combined Franco-Spanish fleet returned in 1781 to pose almost as big a threat to the home territories. That same year, the French tried unsuccessfully to take Jersey, in the Channel Islands. In 1781 and 1782, by which time the Dutch had entered the war as opponents of the British, the government in London feared that the whole of the North Sea coast of England and Scotland was exposed to danger.23 Britain’s Mediterranean outposts of Gibraltar and Minorca came under threat, too, from the moment the Spanish entered the war. Minorca eventually fell, after a prolonged siege, in early 1782, but Gibraltar hung on, defying all the efforts of the Spanish and their French allies to capture it to the very end of the fighting. But to sustain the garrison required repeated relief convoys sent from Britain, supported by many naval vessels.

The West Indies absorbed still more British naval and military resources. As soon as the French became formal belligerents, the government in London planned to redeploy part of the army in North America to attack the new enemy in the Caribbean. Ministers followed the logic of previous Anglo-French wars. If the formidable French war machine was to be stopped, then its financial supply line had to be cut. The West Indian islands appeared to British politicians as a major source of the taxable wealth that enabled the French state to wage its wars. If French islands could be captured, then confidence in French public finances would collapse. But the British government sought at the same time to defend its own Caribbean interests, which it regarded as no less vital to British war finance than the French islands were to Louis XVI’s ability to mobilize his armed forces. In North America, Clinton, Howe’s successor, did his best to delay sending part of his army to the West Indies; he wanted to preserve his command, in the hope that he could still inflict a major defeat on Washington. But eventually he had to let many of his regiments go, where they at first successfully captured St Lucia from the French, but then fell prey to tropical diseases that made the pursuit of further offensive operations very difficult.24 The French took several British islands—Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Kitts—but failed to capture Jamaica, the main prize, which was saved by Admiral Sir George Rodney’s victory at the battle of the Saintes over a combined French and Spanish fleet in April 1782.

From 1778, then, the war became much more geographically dispersed. What had started as a struggle in and for North America spread to Europe and the West Indies. When Spain joined the conflict, it quickly moved to Central America, where the British government hoped to use forces from Jamaica to cross the narrow isthmus to establish a base on the west coast, from where they could launch operations against the vulnerable Spanish possessions in both the Americas and the Pacific. Even French and Dutch trading posts in West Africa and Asia came under attack from the British, while British posts in the same places were themselves threatened by European rivals. The last shots in this truly global conflict were perhaps fittingly exchanged at the end of June 1783 between the British and French many thousands of miles from Lexington and Concord, at Cuddalore in India, where news of the signing of the peace treaties at Paris took many months to arrive.

The British emerged from this wider war with much of their scattered empire intact, and even with some gains at Dutch expense. Indeed, in the last phase of the conflict, the British can be said to have regained the initiative. Rodney’s victory at the Saintes, and the successful defense of Gibraltar, weakened the resolve of the Bourbon powers to continue the fight, and made it easier to conclude a peace settlement in many ways favorable to British interests.25 Nonetheless, the multiplication of battle fronts from 1778 goes some way to explain why the British failed to win in North America. Simply put, the British armed forces were overstretched, and after French intervention the American theater never attracted the resources needed to secure even the London government’s reduced war aim of a southern mainland foothold. But French intervention was critical not only in the sense that it diverted British ships and soldiers from North America, and encouraged the Spanish to enter the war, which then stretched the British war effort in new directions.

French involvement was no less important in America itself. Even before they became formal enemies of the British, the French, as we have seen, had been supplying the rebels with money and munitions. These vital resources undoubtedly sustained American resistance. More direct help came after the French became official belligerents. In 1780, a French army expeditionary force arrived at Rhode Island. It went on to play an important part in snaring Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown the following year. But the French navy proved the most important asset. Prior to 1778, the British navy had dominated American waters. Its lack of challengers meant that British troops could be landed anywhere along the Atlantic coast of the rebel provinces that British commanders willed. After French intervention, all this changed. As it looked inland, the British army in North America could no longer be confident about the sea at its back. If the French navy could coordinate its operations with American and French forces on land, isolated British detachments on the coast might be trapped and forced to surrender. Clinton was only too well aware of the new danger. His fears were almost realized when the French Toulon fleet arrived unexpectedly off New York in the first weeks of the Anglo-French war. A short time later, American troops and French ships nearly delivered a fatal blow to the British garrison at Newport, Rhode Island. The next year, the French and Americans tried again to coordinate an attack on the British force at Savannah in Georgia. As at New York and Rhode Island, they were unsuccessful. But in the summer and autumn of 1781, the potential of the French navy was finally realized. Cornwallis’s troops, entrenched in Yorktown, were besieged on the land side by a numerically superior American and French army, most of which had marched down from New England and New York. By sea, Cornwallis was cut off from relief by the ships of Admiral de Grasse’s fleet. The French vessels saw off an attempt to dislodge them by British warships that had sailed from New York, and Cornwallis was doomed.

The central importance of the French navy in British defeat at Yorktown becomes even more evident when we consider what happened in North America after Cornwallis’s surrender. Washington, unsurprisingly, wanted to follow up the Franco-American triumph with further attacks on vulnerable British outposts. New York, the British headquarters, still housed substantial numbers of troops, while Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, also remained in British hands. If one or more of these coastal bases could be taken, the British would surely be compelled to come rapidly to terms. But de Grasse had no wish to stay in North American waters. His priority, and that of the government in Paris, was the Caribbean, where Jamaica appeared ripe for the picking. De Grasse accordingly sailed south, to defeat at the Saintes, and left Washington without the naval support that had proved so vital at Yorktown. As a result of the withdrawal of the French fleet, the Americans could not force another British detachment to surrender. The garrisons of Savannah and Charleston left when the British were ready to evacuate them, not under pressure from Washington’s army. New York was still in British possession when the war formally ended.

Britain and the United States

Did the Americans win the War of Independence? The question may seem absurd, given the established view, integral to the history of the founding of the United States, that the conflict was a great American triumph. But we have already seen that from 1778 the war was not just a struggle for America, and that the British did better in the last phase of the wider war beyond the rebel colonies than looked likely in the immediate aftermath of Yorktown, when Jamaica appeared exposed and vulnerable, St. Kitts fell, Minorca surrendered, and Gibraltar seemed far from secure. We have seen, too, that even in America, the British lost the shooting war at least as much due to the presence of the French navy as to the dogged determination of Washington and his forces. Now we have to turn to another way in which we should consider the matter; for wars are not just military events, not simply battles and campaigns; they can produce outcomes that undermine the simple attribution of success or failure to the warring parties.

At first glance, considered in this way, the traditional story still retains its persuasive force. For the Americans, at least after the Declaration of Independence, the aim was to secure their new states as entities separate from British authority. For the British government the purpose of the war was to keep the colonies within the British fold, where they would be expected to contribute to imperial defense and administrative costs and continue to be bound by parliamentary regulation of American overseas trade. To the extent that the United States survived a long, bloody, and destructive war, and emerged onto the world stage as a new polity (or perhaps set of polities), free from formal British control, the Americans achieved their objective and the British failed to achieve theirs. There is no mistaking the sense of catastrophe that hung over British politics after Yorktown, and even following the peace of Paris. The king acknowledged American Independence with deep reluctance, even contemplating abdication. In the immediate aftermath of the war, British politicians, press, and public engaged in an agonized national debate about why it had gone so badly wrong.

Yet within a few years what had seemed like an undoubted British defeat began to take on a different appearance. Independent Americans, for all their desire to distance themselves from Britain politically, remained closely associated with Britain culturally and through continuing ties of family and kinship. More importantly, the economic relationships of the colonial period soon resumed. In the aftermath of the war, the desolated state of the southern economy and the keenness of British merchants to exploit new European possibilities meant that there was no immediate recovery in Anglo-American trade. But as European markets began to become more difficult for British merchants to access in the 1790s, thanks to the French Revolutionary Wars, British manufacturing exports to the United States increased dramatically. Americans could afford British imports at least partly because they had a new export staple. Raw cotton, grown across the South, provided the mills of Lancashire and the Clyde Valley of Scotland with the raw material for what rapidly became Britain’s chief manufactured export—cotton textiles. In the 1790s, and well into the 19th century, in other words, the United States remained in an essentially dependent economic relationship with Britain, sending it agricultural products, and receiving in return British manufactures. The British, the nominal losers of the War of Independence, retained the principal benefits of empire without the costs.

Discussion of the Literature

The scholarship on the American Revolution is vast, and its military history only slightly less voluminous. In very broad terms, historians divide over whether the Revolution can be explained simply in constitutional terms or whether it should be seen as a product of stresses and strains observable in colonial society in the decades before the breakdown in relations with Britain. Constitutional explanations lay emphasis on the role of the British army as the cause of the taxes that Americans resisted; the role of the navy is now beginning for the first time to be taken seriously. Broader social explanations point to the colonies’ increasing commercialization, concentration of wealth, and ethnic diversity as factors that contributed to what might have become a real Revolution rather than just a struggle for home rule and then independence. Examples of the two approaches can be seen respectively in the work of Jack P. Greene, perhaps particularly his Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution26, and Gary Nash, especially his The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America.27

Divisions over causes are matched by interpretive differences over how the war should be understood. Most American historians tend to emphasize, unsurprisingly, the American dimension of the war; for them the conflict was fought for and in America. It created the United States, and allowed the new polity to survive and eventually prosper, emerging onto the world stage as a formidable force from the late 19th century, and becoming a superpower in the next century. Representative of this American approach are the war-related chapters in Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–178928 and John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence.29 British historians, by contrast, are more inclined, for equally understandable reasons, to lay stress on the global nature of the war, especially from 1778, when the French joined the struggle as open allies of the Americans. The wider war, fought out in many parts of the world, appears in British accounts as an episode in a long-running Anglo-French contest for imperial dominance, as merely part of a story that starts at the beginning of the 18th century and ends only at Waterloo in 1815. British historians’ concentration on the broader war between 1778 and 1783 also enables them, of course, better to explain the failure of the British armed forces to defeat the Americans; the British state was simply overstretched and could not hope to recover the rebel colonies and cling on to other parts of its empire. Perhaps the best example of the broad approach favored by British historians is Piers Mackesy’s The War for America, 1775–1783.30 Stephen Conway’s The War of American Independence, 1775–178331 and A Short History of the American Revolutionary War32, follow in Mackesy’s footsteps.

Primary Sources

The quantity of primary materials available for work on aspects of the military history of the Revolution is very large. The papers of the leading American commanders, George Washington and Nathanael Greene, have been published in multivolume editions.33 Diaries and correspondence of less well-known military participants have also been put into print: good examples from each side are Ira D. Gruber, ed., John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776–178234 and Mark E. Lender and James Kirby Martin, eds., Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfield.35 A particularly valuable collection of French accounts of the war in America is Howard C. Rice Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army.36

Many important sources remain in manuscript form. Collections relating to the American experience of the War of Independence can be found in the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. The William L. Clements Library, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, holds the papers of Sir Henry Clinton, which illuminate the British perspective on the war, and the papers of Thomas Gage, which tell us a great deal about the British army in America between 1763 and 1775. The Loudoun Papers in the Huntington Library, at San Marino, California, are similarly helpful. In London, the National Archives of the United Kingdom contain the Colonial Office Papers, which include reports from colonial governors and military commanders in North America. The British Library’s Haldimand Papers reveal much about the British army in North America before and during the War of Independence. The National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh holds numerous collections of papers relating to British officers who served in the American conflict.

Further Reading

Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in North America, 1754–1766. New York: Knopf, 2000.Find this resource:

Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775–1783. Stroud, U.K.: Allan Sutton, 1991.Find this resource:

Bowler, R. A. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in North America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Conway, Stephen, A Short History of the American Revolutionary War. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.Find this resource:

Dull, Jonathan. The French Navy and American Independence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789. New York: Macmillan, 1971.Find this resource:

Kennet, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780–1783. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977.Find this resource:

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longmans, 1964.Find this resource:

Marshall, P. J. Remaking the British Atlantic: The United States and Britain after Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Middleton, Richard. The War of Independence, 1775–1783. London: Pearson, 2012.Find this resource:

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The British West Indies and the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Shy, John, Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.Find this resource:

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1714–1783. London: Allen Lane, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) See, for example, Alan Rogers, Empire and Liberty: American Resistance to British Authority, 1755–1763 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Douglas Edward Leach, Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), chs. 5 and 6.

(2.) See, for example, Stephen Conway, War, State, and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 240–243; Woody Holton, “How the Seven Years’ War Turned Americans into (British) Patriots,” in Warren R. Hofstra, ed., Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2007), 127–143.

(3.) For the settlement of 1757–1758, see Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in North America, 1754–1766 (New York: Knopf, 2000), chs. 21 and 22.

(4.) See, for example, Nottingham University Library, Galway MSS, Ga M 23, 38, 62, letters to Robert Monckton from James Cuninghame, June 24, 1758, Isaac Barré, April 9, 1759, and Jeffrey Amherst, July 24, 1760; Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Amherst Papers, U 1350 C 84/2, Barré to William Amherst, April 18, 1758, and O 38/6, Amherst to Lord Barrington, May 19, 1760.

(5.) See Julie Flavell, “British Perceptions of New England and the Decision for a Coercive Colonial Policy, 1774–1775,” in Julie Flavell and Stephen Conway, eds., Britain and America Go to War: The Impact of War and Warfare in Anglo-America, 1754–1815 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 95–115.

(6.) Clarence E. Carter, ed., The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage (2 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–1934), 2: 686 (Gage to Lord Barrington, June 26, 1775).

(7.) The classical account is John Shy, Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), ch. 2. But see also John L. Bullion, “‘The Ten Thousand in America’: More Light on the Decision on the American Army, 1762–1763,” William & Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 43 (1986): 646–657.

(8.) See, for example, the argument put by an unnamed MP to Benjamin Franklin in 1766: “Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country, and pay no part of the expence?” R. C. Simmons and P. D. G. Thomas, eds., Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1754–1783 (6 vols. to date, Millward, NY: Kraus International, 1982–), 2: 237.

(9.) See Charles Ivar McGrath, Ireland and the British Empire, 1688–1770 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012), ch. 6.

(10.) Carter, ed., Correspondence of Gage, 1: 122–123 (the Earl of Hillsborough to Gage, January 2, 1771).

(11.) See, for example, Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Prologue to Revolution: Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764–1766 (New York: Norton, 1959), 51, 56, 58–59, 61.

(12.) See Shy, Toward Lexington, 278, 374.

(13.) See Simmons and Thomas, eds., Proceedings and Debates, 2: 457.

(14.) See, for example, Richard Archer, As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), chs. 10–11.

(15.) L. R. Boyer, “Lobster Backs, Liberty Boys, and Laborers in the Streets: New York’s Golden Hill and Nassau Street Riots,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 57 (1973): 281–308.

(16.) Calderdale Archives, Halifax, Lister of Shibden Hall Muniments, Jeremy Lister to William Fawcett, December 2, 1774.

(17.) Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, Stowe Collection, Grenville Papers, STG Box 13(6), Whately-Temple Correspondence, Whately to John Temple, November 5, 1764.

(18.) The argument pursued here is elaborated in Stephen Conway, “Another Look at the Navigation Acts and the American Revolution,” in Christer Petley and John McAleer, eds., The Royal Navy and the Atlantic World, 1756–1815 (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2016).

(19.) Merrill Jensen, ed., English Historical Documents, IX, American Colonial Documents to 1776 (London: Eyre & Spotteswoode, 1969), 807.

(20.) See also Sarah Kinkel, “The King’s Pirates? Naval Enforcement of Imperial Authority, 1740–1776,” William & Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 71 (2014): 3–34.

(21.) The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), Colonial Office Papers, CO 5/664, fos. 87–88, Wright to the Earl of Dartmouth, April 24, 1775.

(22.) TNA, Colonial Office Papers, CO 5/95, fos. 41–42, Germain to Clinton, March 8, 1778, CO 5/96, fo. 25, Germain to Clinton, August 5, 1778.

(23.) Stephen Conway, The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 196–200.

(24.) For the high sickness rates in the West Indies, see, for example, National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, Broughton and Cally Muniments, GD 10/1421/7/338.

(25.) For the beneficial impact of the Saintes on British morale, see Stephen Conway, “‘A Joy Unknown for Years Past’: The American War, Britishness, and the Celebration of Rodney’s Victory at the Saints,” History 86 (2001): 180–199.

(26.) Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

(27.) London: Jonathan Cape, 2006.

(28.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

(29.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

(30.) London: Longmans, 1964.

(31.) London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

(32.) London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

(33.) Philander D. Chase et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series (15 vols. to date, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985–); Richard K. Showman et al., eds., The Papers of Nathanael Greene (13 vols., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976–2006).

(34.) Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 1998.

(35.) Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982.

(36.) 2 vols., Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.