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American History: The American Revolution

Updated on February 13, 2013

The American Revolution In Images

Images from the Revolution: Top left (Battle of Bunker Hill), Top right (Death of Montgomery at Quebec), Bottom left (Battle of Cowpens) and Bottom right (Battle of Cape St. Vincent)
Images from the Revolution: Top left (Battle of Bunker Hill), Top right (Death of Montgomery at Quebec), Bottom left (Battle of Cowpens) and Bottom right (Battle of Cape St. Vincent) | Source

The Thirteen Colonies

The thirteen colours are depicted as red, while the pink denotes areas the British claimed authority over, while the orange area belonged to Spain.
The thirteen colours are depicted as red, while the pink denotes areas the British claimed authority over, while the orange area belonged to Spain. | Source

The Boston Tea Party

An iconic image showing tea being thrown overboard at Boston Harbour in 1773.
An iconic image showing tea being thrown overboard at Boston Harbour in 1773. | Source

Background

The American Revolution was born out of a confrontation between the North American British colonies and the British government over taxation to finance defence and the right to run their own affairs.

It was only after the French and Indian War of 1754-63 that Britain finally decided to station a permanent army in North America. The government of course, expected the colonists to pay for their upkeep. But most colonists resented the army presence and none wanted to pay taxes imposed by the British or the customs duties to support it.

Trouble flared up in Boston, Massachusetts, where British troops killed five people in suppressing a riot in 1770. The famous ‘Boston Tea Party’ of 1773, a protest against custom duties, was a more thorough-going defiance of British authority. In 1774 Massachusetts was placed under the military rule of General Thomas Gage. The Massachusetts legislature refused to recognise his authority and the other colonies (initially except Georgia) rallied to its support, meeting in the Continental Congress. Radical ‘patriots’ began attacks on pro-British Americans, and local militias prepared to resist the British soldiers.

The American Revolution Explained

The Battle Of Bunker Hill

A painting by Howard Pyle showing the Redcoats advancing at the Battle of Bunker Hill
A painting by Howard Pyle showing the Redcoats advancing at the Battle of Bunker Hill | Source

Washington

General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army and of course, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army and of course, one of the founding fathers of the United States. | Source

A Documentary On George Washington

The Early Stages

In 1775 General Thomas Gage had orders to suppress the rebellion in Massachusetts. In practice, his British army Redcoats only controlled Boston. On the night of the 18th-19th April almost 700 Redcoats marched out of the city to seize rebel weapons stored at the nearby town of Concord. They clashed with local militia first at the village of Lexington and then at Concord’s North Bridge. The Redcoats were forced to retreat. The rebel militia, strengthened by soldiers recruited by the American Congress besieged the British in Boston. Britain sailed 4500 troops across the Atlantic to reinforce the garrison, which sortied to attack fortified militia positions on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill on the 16th June. The disciplined British infantry took the rebel positions, but at heavy cost, it eventually abandoned the garrison at Boston in March 1776.

King George III’s government hoped that American loyalists would play the leading role in restoring royal authority in the colonies. They were indeed many Americans who fought for the British including black slaves who saw Britain as offering hope of freedom, but the rebels controlled the militias in most of the colonies. Despite recruiting 30,000 ‘Hessian’ German mercenaries, the British faced an insoluble manpower problem. They had insufficient forces to campaign across the broad spaces of North America and garrison areas under their control. Keeping large numbers of soldiers supplied across the Atlantic was a formidable task. Moreover, Britain needed to reconcile the colonies to its rule, yet the conflict caused a bitterness that made this almost impossible.

The American political leaders in the Congress were more conservative than revolutionaries, it was dominated by lawyers and landowners and their views on the prosecution of war were conventional. In June 1775, they voted to form a Continental Army, recruited from all the colonies, to fight a war under George Washington. This was to be a traditional European style army, which was to be disciplined and drilled into an efficient fighting machine. Washington, assisted from 1778 by his Prussian inspector-general, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, had a hard task creating and maintaining such a force. It was short of money and supplies and desertion was a common problem. Yet in the end the army fought effectively.

Independence

A copy of the US Declaration of Independence signed on the 4th July, including John Hancock's famous signature.
A copy of the US Declaration of Independence signed on the 4th July, including John Hancock's famous signature. | Source

Surrender At Saratoga

A portrait showing British General John Burgoyne surrendering to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga.
A portrait showing British General John Burgoyne surrendering to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. | Source

French Support

Congress took the decisive and irrevocable measure of declaring independence on the 4th July 1776; however, it was the British who went on the offensive. General William Howe seized New York after an amphibious landing and used it as a base from which to attack the rebel capital, Philadelphia, which he occupied in 1777. Meanwhile, after the repulse of an initial American attack on Canada, General John Burgoyne led a British army south from the Canadian border to the Hudson River. By October 1777, Burgoyne’s force was surrounded at Saratoga and had to surrender.

The American victory at Saratoga was the turning point of the conflict; it persuaded France that the newly founded United States was worth backing. The French allied themselves with the Americans in February 1778 and went to war with the British the following June. By 1780 Britain was also at war with the Spanish and the Dutch. For the British, the conflict in North America was less important than the wider war with these European enemies, who threatened other more valuable British interests, including the colonies in the West Indies. Consequently British strength in North America declined, while a French army under the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in July 1780 to support Washington. Still, for a long time, it was unclear how the Americans could win control of the new country they had founded.

The Final Victory

A portrait showing British Commander Lord Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
A portrait showing British Commander Lord Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781. | Source

Yorktown On Film

A Famous American Revolution Film

The Rebels Fight Back

The Continental Army barely survived a gruelling winter camped at Valley Forge in 1777-78. Then the British used their naval power to spread the fighting to the south. Under their new commander in chief General Sir Henry Clinton, they seized Charleston in South Carolina and Savannah in Georgia. This triggered a vicious war in the back country of the Carolinas- a virtual civil war between rebel and loyalist militias. American rebels such as South Carolina’s militia leader, Francis Marion, and Continental Army general, Nathanael Greene, turned to guerrilla warfare, but the loyalists also practised irregular warfare ruthlessly and to good effect.

General Charles Cornwallis was the commander of British forces in the southern theatre. He scored a striking victory over General Horatio Gates at Camden in South Carolina in August 1780 but was less successful in following battles. Cornwallis decided to end his campaign and marched north through North Carolina into Virginia.

In summer 1781, Cornwallis dug in to a position on Chesapeake Bay, where he could be supplied from the sea. But British command of the sea could no longer be relied upon in the face of a French Navy reinvigorated since the seaborne disasters during the Seven Years War. While Washington and Rochambeau brought their armies south to besiege Cornwallis’ force on land, on the 5th September, Admiral de Grasse defeated a British fleet off Chesapeake Bay. Trapped, heavily outnumbered, and without hope of relief. General Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown on the 19th October 1781.

The United States Is Born

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 saw Britain finally acknowledge birth of the United States as a country in its own right, thus vindicating the 1776 American declaration.
The Treaty of Paris in 1783 saw Britain finally acknowledge birth of the United States as a country in its own right, thus vindicating the 1776 American declaration. | Source

Aftermath

After the humiliation of the surrender at Yorktown, Britain gave up trying to win the war in North America, although peace was not signed for another two years. The British finally recognised the independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris (1783). A naval victory over the French in the West Indies in 1782 limited Britain’s losses in the wider war, although Florida, held by Britain since 1763, was returned to Spanish rule.

In the United States the role of armed citizens in the initial resistance to Britain ensured that a right to bear arms would be written into the Constitution. There was a fierce dispute in the post-independence period over whether the US required a standing army, but a small permanent force was maintained. The now fully independent United States would fight Britain once more in the War of 1812.

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    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow, that is very interesting TB, thank you very much for sharing that.

    • TB Bullock profile image

      Thaddeus Byron Bullock Jr. 4 years ago from Clemson, South Carolina

      Even more interesting is that I played football (American) on the exact same grounds that Horatio Gates fled from after being militarily defeated by Cornwallis. The field that I exerted my athletic dominance upon is still shadowed by what is to this day known as the "Kershaw-Cornwallis House", and was General Cornwallis' headquarters during his southern campaign. If you view my Facebook profile, I am standing on the same steps during my senior prom picture that Cornwallis stood on while directing his military strategies towards Sumter and Marion's militia. Very strange indeed! Also historically intriguing!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much, I'm not surprised at all that there are still areas of the US that are heavily influenced by the UK. It's important to remember that a significant portion of Americans share a cultural and historical heritage with us. Interesting to hear that your hometown is called Camden, as there is a Camden in London. Another example of shared heritage.

    • TB Bullock profile image

      Thaddeus Byron Bullock Jr. 4 years ago from Clemson, South Carolina

      Great hub, your summary included all of the historically significant facts regarding the war in a concise, yet cogent and explanatory manner. I believe a key factor in America and the U.K. becoming allies so swiftly after the War of 1812 was a combination of two aspects: our mutual hatred of the French (we would probably have preferred to be re-colonized by the U.K. than to subject ourselves to French rule at that period in time, many Americans still dislike the French) and the similarity of American and British culture. I'm from Camden, which I'm sure you know was occupied by the British throughout most of the war and for a substantial period of time before that. That influence can still be seen to this day, and many golfers and equestrian enthusiasts originally from the U.K. have retired there because it reminded them so much of home. That aside, outstanding hub.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes, I agree if the French hadn't of intervened then the 13 colonies would have remained British for much longer. But of course, the French were trying to build their own American Empire, so conflict between us and them was inevitable. But as you say, Chris, it's all in the past now. Thanks for popping by.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for a very comprehensive account of a very contentious era. We almost won too. It's just a pity that the French had to intervene. Still it is all in the past now.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      The Oscar Pistorious story is quite shocking, he's the only Paralympian ever to compete in the actual Olympics, and now apparently he's a murderer on account of again apparently shooting his girlfriend in the head at point blank range.

      To be honest my knowledge of the NRA is sketchy at best, but anything with a 'corporate' status is evil. Did you know that apparently according to the US Constitution, a Corporation can claim the same legal rights as a person. How's that for shocking?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I think you're right Julie, they do say that the American Revolution served as one of many sources of inspiration for the French Revolution. I find it incredible that just 200 years ago the USA and UK were enemies, and yet after the War of 1812 they became firm friends. It must be the shared history, because obviously, many of the first settlers came from Plymouth.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      James, another interesting hub. I find American history fascinating and I think the whole revolutionary culture has a lot to answer for in British history (and consequently in other countries as a result). Isn't it incredible that the USA and UK are still such close allies in spite of their past - I suppose speaking the same language helps.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much DilipChandra

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you DDE.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 4 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I did not catch that story, but I guess I will have to go read what is happening. The NRA is a very corporate thing, and a business out to make money. People think they are buying safety and freedom, but they are really just lining the pockets books of those who are benefiting from the ever worsening economy. Gun themed items have been selling more and more with all the tragedies going on, and it seems the logic on this issue is skewed. If I were younger I would probably be happier in a place like Australia, or so I often think.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Thanks for sharing such interesting information you have enlightened me on The American History.

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 4 years ago from India

      Excellent history Kenny. Every event was explained well. Really very good, useful hub. I appreciate your effort in explaining the topic well.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's not a bad idea actually, definitely something to consider. Interesting footnote about the Revolution it's all too easy to forget that many Americans actually remained loyal to the Crown. I remember reading that the majority of loyalists hailed from Virginia. I think the NRA actually obstructs any sort of change that makes sense, because every time the idea of gun control is raised, they simply throw the Second Amendment out there.

      Did you hear about the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius? Apparently he shot his girlfriend dead this morning. I'm not certain, but I think South Africa has similar liberal gun laws as the States.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      You're absolutely right- the same goes for the War of 1812. If wasn't for a certain French tyrant, then there's little doubt that the British would've regained their colonies. I suppose its no coincidence that the American Revolution gets very little coverage over here, while, of course we glorify in the defeat of Napoleon.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 4 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I actually think the way the UK deals with their police force and disarmament makes sense. Maybe you should write a hub on this subject, if you do not consider it too controversial. In my mind people are buying more guns because it is something the NRA is pushing to make money, but a consumer will always buy whatever the corps heads are selling. Also, as a foot note the American Revolution was not supported by most colonists in the beginning, and 2/3 of the population actually was still loyalist. It was not until towards the end people's minds changed around, and that was mostly because things were going that way anyway. Also, a lot of colonists moved to Canada after the war because they remained loyal to the crown.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      JKenny, you did a great job of covering the revolution in a single hub. We in the States of course view the American Revolution as the only thing that mattered at the time, but I think it's safe to say that, if the unrest in the colonies was all the British had to deal with, we might still be having tea-time, spelling 'color' as 'colour' and saying 'Blimey, taxes are high'. Voted up, etc.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi SweetiePie, yes I agree, I think the days of Americans fearing an attack by the British Redcoats are long over, so your Second Amendment is largely irrelevant. But I also think that if the citizens are disarmed, then so should the police, as I think that armed cops dealing with an unarmed populace will inevitably end up abusing their power. In Britain our gun laws were tightened after the Dunblane School massacre in 1996; also none of our regular police carry guns, instead they use tazers and pepper spray to apprehend dangerous criminals. They use dogs as well. It's very difficult to obtain a weapon here. There's a gun shop not far from me, but it's almost never open and any business is conducted through strict appointments and security. Perhaps it's time for America to tighten their laws, there are other ways to defend yourself rather than using a gun. Thanks for popping by.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 4 years ago from Southern California, USA

      With what is happening in my area recently with yet another gun shoot out, I have to say some of us Americans have serious reservations about the gun culture. In this country where we supposedly have freedom of speech, you will be ridiculed and belittled for saying you believe in gun control. Pretty funny so many Americans are obsessed with the second amendment, but do not really balk that so many others are broken every day. Good hub on the American Revolution though. I just have to say as an American I actually like that other western nations have sensible gun regulation, and I want my country to come into the 21st century on this issue. We are not living in the wild west anymore.