Few believed that patriots were strong enough to defeat the powerful British Empire. On the same day that the Continental Congress voted for independence, the British began landing troops in New York. By mid-August, they had assembled an estimated 32,000 men. British officials did not expect the rebellion to last very long. The British troops were disciplined, well trained, and well equipped. Compared to the British troops, the Continental Army was inexperienced and poorly equipped. Throughout the war, it struggled to keep its recruits and pay their wages. Although over 230,000 men served in the Continental Army, they rarely numbered more than 20,000 at any one time. Many soldiers deserted or refused to reenlist when their term was up. Others left their posts and returned to their farms at planting or harvest time.

Paying for the war was equally difficult. Lacking the power to tax, the Continental Congress issued paper money. These "Continentals" were not backed by gold or silver and became almost worthless very quickly. Fortunately Robert Morris, a wealthy Pennsylvania merchant and banker, personally pledged large amounts of money for the war effort. Morris also set up an efficient method of buying rations and uniforms, arranged for foreign loans, and convinced the Congress to create the Bank of North America to finance the military.

The Continental Army was not the only force the British had to worry about. They also had to fight the local militias. The militias were poorly trained, but they fought differently. They did not always line up for battle. They hid among trees and behind walls and ambushed British troops and supply wagons, then disappeared. This kind of fighting is called guerrilla warfare, and it is very difficult to defeat.


During the Revolutionary War, Commander in Chief George Washington became a national hero. An imposing man, Washington stood six feet two inches tall. He was broad-shouldered, calm, and dignified, and he was an expert horseman. But it was Washington's character that won hearts and, ultimately, the war. Washington roused dispirited men into a fighting force. At Princeton, he galloped on his white horse into the line of fire, shouting and encouraging his men. At Valley Forge, he bore the same cold and privation as every suffering soldier. Time and again, Washington's tactics saved his smaller, weaker force to fight another day. By the end of the war, the entire nation idolized General Washington, and adoring soldiers crowded near him just to touch his boots when he rode by.


The British had previously retreated from Boston in March 1776, moving the theater of war to the Middle states. As part of a grand plan to stop the rebellion by isolating New England, the British decided to seize New York City.

Two brothers, General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, joined forces on Staten Island and sailed into New York harbor in the summer of 1776 with the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled— 32,000 soldiers, including thousands of German mercenaries, or soldiers who fight solely for money. The Americans called these troops Hessians, because many of them came from the German region of Hesse.

Washington rallied 23,000 men to New York’s defense, but he was vastly outnumbered. Most of his troops were untrained recruits with poor equipment. The battle for New York ended in late August with an American retreat following heavy losses. Michael Graham, a Continental Army volunteer, described the chaotic withdrawal on August 27, 1776.

It is impossible for me to describe the confusion and horror of the scene that ensued: the artillery flying . . . over the horses’ backs, our men running in almost every direction, . . . [a]nd the enemy huzzahing when they took prisoners. …At the time, I could not account for how it was that our troops were so completely surrounded but have since understood there was another road across the ridge several miles above Flatbush that was left unoccupied by our troops. Here the British passed and got betwixt them and Brooklyn unobserved. This accounts for the disaster of that day.
The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence

By late fall, the British had pushed Washington’s army across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The vast majority of Washington’s men had either deserted or had been killed or captured. Fewer than 8,000 men remained under Washington’s command, and the terms of their enlistment were due to end on December 31. Washington desperately needed some kind of victory for his men to keep them from going home.

Washington resolved to risk everything on one bold stroke set for Christmas night, 1776. He led 2,400 men in small rowboats across the ice-choked Delaware River. By 8 o’clock the next morning, the men had marched nine miles through sleet and snow to the objective—Trenton, New Jersey, held by a garrison of Hessians. In a surprise attack, the Americans killed 30 of the enemy and took 918 captives and six Hessian cannons. The Americans were rallied by another astonishing victory eight days later against 1,200 British stationed at Princeton. Encouraged by these victories, Washington marched his army into winter camp near Morristown, in northern New Jersey.


Just before Washington's victory at Trenton, Thomas Paine, published another pamphlet - "The American Crisis." This work helped to raise morale among the dispirited soldiers.

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer sol-dier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis


As the muddy fields dried out in the spring of 1777, General Howe began his campaign to seize the American capital at Philadelphia. His troops sailed from New York to the head of Chesapeake Bay, and landed near the capital in late August. The Continental Congress fled the city while Washington’s troops unsuccessfully tried to block the redcoats at nearby Brandywine Creek. The British captured Philadelphia, and the pleasure-loving General Howe settled in to enjoy the hospitality of the city’s grateful Loyalists


Meanwhile, General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, convinced the London high command to allow him to pursue a complex scheme. Burgoyne’s plan was to lead an army down a route of lakes from Canada to Albany, where he would meet Howe’s troops as they arrived from New York City. According to Burgoyne’s plan, the two generals would then join forces to isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. South of Lake Champlain, swamps and gullies, as well as thick underbrush, bogged down Burgoyne’s army. Food supplies ran low. The Continental Congress had appointed General Horatio Gates to command the Northern Department of the Continental Army. Gates, gathered militiamen and soldiers from all over New York and New England. Burgoyne lost several hundred men every time his forces clashed with the Americans. Even worse, Burgoyne didn’t realize that Howe was preoccupied with conquering and occupying Philadelphia and wasn’t coming to meet him. Massed American troops finally surrounded Burgoyne at Saratoga, where he surrendered his battered army to General Gates on October 17, 1777.


Still bitter from their defeat by the British in the French and Indian War, the French had secretly sent weapons to the Patriots since early 1776. The Saratoga victory bolstered French trust in the American army, and France now agreed to support the Revolution. The French recognized American independence and signed an alliance, with the Americans in February 1778. France agreed not to make peace with Britain unless Britain also recognized American independence.


It would take months for French aid to arrive. In the meantime, the British controlled New York and parts of New England. While British troops wintered comfortably in Philadelphia, Washington and his meager Continental Army struggled to stay alive amidst bitter cold and primitive conditions at winter camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Soldiers suffered from exposure and frostbite, and surgeons like Albigense Waldo worked constantly but often unsuccessfully to save arms and limbs from amputation. Washington’s letters to the Congress and his friends were filled with reports of the suffering and endurance of his men. Of the 10,000 soldiers who braved wind, snow, and hunger at Valley Forge that winter, more than 2,000 died. Yet those who survived remained at their posts.

To see men without Clothes to cover their nakedness, with¬out Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the blood of their feet, and almost as often without Provision ... is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarcely be paralleled.
George Washington, Ordeal at Valley Forge
Here comes a bowl of beef soup full of dead leaves and dirt. There comes a soldier. His bare feet are seen through his worn-out shoes-his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings-his Breeches [trousers] are not sufficient to cover his nakedness-his Shirt hanging in Strings-his hair disheveled-his face meager.
Albegense Waldo, surgeon at Valley Forge


In 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation, promising liberty and protection to slaves who would fight for the British. Other British generals followed suit. Between 10,000 and 20,000 black men offered their services to the king. The British used them as laborers, orderlies, scouts, and spies. Slaves made excellent scouts and spies because they knew the location of local roads and rivers, which British soldiers did not.

Lord Dunmore

The British also gave guns to blacks. Lord Dunmore, British governor of the colony of Virginia, enlisted 500 slaves in what became known as "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment." In a letter to England, Dunmore wrote, "My Negroes fought with skill and valor. Daily, new men arrive to join us." It was the first black regiment raised by either side during the Revolution.

The British kept their word to the African Americans who served them during the war. Thousands of them were transported to Nova-Scotia as free men and women.


After Saratoga the British shifted their operations to the south. They were quite successful from 1779-1780. But the Continental army was by then battle-hardened, supported by well organized militias, and the French forces. French financial and naval assistance, which allowed for Atlantic trade to resume, was also key in turning the Americans into a formidable adversary. In short, the outcome of the war was no longer a forgone conclusion.

In 1780, a French army of 6,000 had landed in Newport, Rhode Island, after the British left the city to focus on the South. The French had stationed one fleet there and were operating another in the West Indies. When news of Cornwallis’s plans reached him, the Marquis de Lafayette suggested that the American and French armies join forces with the two French fleets and attack the British forces at Yorktown.

Following Lafayette’s plan, the Americans and the French closed in on Cornwallis. A French naval force defeated a British fleet and then blocked the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, thereby preventing a British rescue by sea. Meanwhile, about 17,000 French and American troops surrounded the British on the Yorktown peninsula and bombarded them day and night. The siege of Yorktown lasted about three weeks. On October 17, 1781, with his troops outnumbered by more than two to one and exhausted from constant shelling, Cornwallis finally raised the white flag of surrender.


In September 1783, the delegates signed the Treaty of Paris, which confirmed U.S. independence and set the boundaries of the new nation. The United States now stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from Canada to the Florida border. Some provisions of the treaty promised future trouble. The British made no attempt to protect the land interests of their Native American allies, and the treaty did not specify when the British would evacuate their American forts. On the other side, the Americans agreed that British creditors could collect debts owed them by Americans and promised to allow Loyalists to sue in state courts for recovery of their losses. The state governments, however, later failed to honor this agreement.

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