|The raising of a Liberty
Pole, a tradition during the revolutionary years. Liberty Poles or
Liberty Trees were erected where colonists gathered to hear patriotic
speeches or to send sons off to war. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Most observers expected the revolution to be put
down quickly. A
colonial population of about 2.5 million people, many of whom remained
loyal to the British crown, stacked against a nation of 10 million
boasting the largest, best trained army and navy in existence, seemed
like a mismatch.
Still, the British faced a key obstacle: The Atlantic Ocean. In
addition, the Redcoats would have to fight in an unfamiliar wilderness,
totally unlike anything they had experienced in the open battlefields
of Europe. As we shall soon see, this proved to be a crucial advantage
to the Americans.
Not long after the Declaration of Independence was enthusiastically
adopted, General George Washington and his Continental army suffered a
serious defeat at New York, loosing control of the largest American
city and its harbor to the British. Thanks to clever evasive tactics,
Washington saved his men from total annihilation at the hands of a
vastly superior force. Throughout the remainder of 1776, disaster after
disaster hammered away at American hopes. Battered and beaten,
Washington and his remaining 8000 troops slipped away across the
Delaware River into Pennsylvania in the late fall of 1776 to regroup.
The winter encampment was a dismal time for the Continentals. Even the
normally optimistic Washington was dispirited, writing "I think the
game is pretty near up". Enveloped by despair and doubt, desertions and
disease inflicted a toll on the Americans. One bright spot was Thomas
Paine's The Crisis, a publication expressing gratitude to the soldiers
remaining loyal to the Revolution. "These are the times that try men's
souls", wrote Paine, and it became a great rallying cry at a moment
when all seemed lost.
|This famous painting by
Emanuel Leutze captures the historic moment when General George
Washington led the American revolutionary troops across the Delaware
River, surprising the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26,
1776. The dramatic image of Washington leading his troops to victory
conveys an emotional and patriotic message to all who love America. Public
Washington knew some kind of victory was needed
to revive morale and
show everyone that the Americans could still fight with resolve. At
that, he decided to bet everything on one bold surprise attack.
On the very cold Christmas night of 1776, Washington and 2400 of his
men quietly crossed back over the icy Delaware River to the New Jersey
side, and marched nine miles to Trenton, where over 1000 Hessian troops
were sleeping off their Christmas excesses (Hessians were Germans paid
by King George III to fight against the colonists. Many of the 30,000
eventually serving in America came from the province of Hesse-Cassel,
hence the name "Hessians"). Attacked at sunrise, the Hessians were
completely surprised, being routed in minutes. When British
reinforcements rushed to the Trenton area, Washington deceived the
opposition into believing his army was stationary by leaving their
campfires burning brightly. While the British were preparing to attack
an empty campsite, Washington sped to Princeton and defeated a group of
British regulars in early January, 1777. With these two impressive
victories, the American spirit was reborn. During the next few months,
volunteers joined the Continental Army at a solid pace. Washington's
big gamble had paid off.
|"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne
influenced London to attack New York from Canada. Traveling with his
four post bed and fine wines, Burgoyne was not prepared for what he
found in the rugged American landscape. Image courtesy of National Archives.
In 1777, the British War Office in London
developed a plan they thought
for sure would put an end to the American rebellion. The plan was to
split the colonies in two by controlling the waterways between New York
and Montreal. Three armies were to be involved in a joint venture to
make this happen. One force, under General William Howe, was to move
north out of New York City and take Albany and control of the Hudson
A second detachment, led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, was ordered to
proceed east toward Albany from Lake Ontario.
The largest deployment, under the command of General John Burgoyne, was
to travel south of Montreal, take Lake Champlain, and rendezvous with
St. Leger and Howe at Albany, where they would combine to strike the
final death blow against the American rebels.
Unfortunately for them, the maps of the London war planners did not
provide information on the terrain the British military would have to
overcome. The pencil lines directing troop movements, in reality,
represented treks through swamps, mountains, and dense forests, all
swarming with sharp-shooter militiamen prepared to give their lives in
defense of their homes and country.
|British general John Burgoyne
hands over his sword to American General Horatio Gates, on October 17,
1777, at Saratoga, New York. The American victory was the pivotal event
of the Revolution, convincing European observers the underdog rebels
might actually defeat the mighty British. A few months later, France
openly agreed to provide badly needed assistance to the upstart
Continental Army. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
For reasons that remain unclear, Howe led his
force south toward
Philadelphia, without the knowledge of Burgoyne or St. Leger. After
several victorious engagements against Washington, Howe seized
Philadelphia in late September, 1777.
St. Leger, moving eastward from Lake Ontario, encountered resistance at
Fort Stanwix, but completely reversed course when word came of a
rapidly approaching large column of troops under the command of General
Benedict Arnold (this was before his treason). Of the three British
officers scheduled to link up at Albany, only Burgoyne got close to his
destination, but this turned out to be a disaster for him.
Burgoyne started southward from Montreal with about 8000 men, but he
was not trained to lead such a large expedition through a forested
wilderness. Felled trees by American axmen and other obstacles slowed
his progress to a crawl. Motivated patriots from all over New England
were gathering in New York and clashed frequently with Redcoats,
sometimes inflicting heavy casualties at little cost to themselves. By
the time Burgoyne reached Saratoga, New York (less than 40 miles north
of Albany) his situation was extremely serious. His munitions nearly
gone, his supply lines severed, and with no reinforcements to join him,
Burgoyne found himself surrounded by 20,000 American soldiers under the
command of General Horatio Gates. Realizing he had no choice, the
British general surrendered his remaining 6000 men over to Gates on
October 17, 1777. The victory at Saratoga proved to be the pivotal
event of the American Revolution.
As crucial as the triumph at Saratoga was logistically, the loudest
reverberations were heard in Paris and other European capitals. The
French had been sympathetic to the plight of the Americans, and in
fact, had been secretly providing badly needed materiel from the
beginning. Now that the Continentals had demonstrated the possibility
of upsetting Great Britain, the French were eager to openly support the
revolution, in hopes of humiliating their arch enemy across the English
|Washington and Lafayette,
concerned for the well being of the poorly clothed soldiers at Valley
Forge These two leaders greatly respected one another. After the war,
Lafayette returned to America on several occasions, receiving a
well-earned hero's welcome each time. Image courtesy of National Archives.
Largely through the diplomatic charm of Benjamin
committed itself to send gold, gunpowder, shot, equipment, ships, and
troops to supplement the American forces.
The most famous French contributor to the liberation of America was, of
course, Marie Joseph Paul, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette,
who had been serving loyally at Washington's side even before the
Franco-American alliance was officially formed.
In addition to France, Spain and the Netherlands now supported the
Americans. Volunteers from other European countries came to offer
assistance also. From Prussia (modern day Germany) came Baron Friedrich
von Steuben, and Casimer Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, both of
|Lafayette's service to
America is honored on this commemorative $1.00 coin released in 1900,
appearing next to George Washington. The figure on the reverse is
similar to the statue of Lafayette erected in Paris, as a gift to
France from the American people. Photo courtesy of Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc., Beverly Hills,
Brilliant military strategists all, these
officers helped transform the
Continental army into a cohesive unit of professional soldiers, and
participated in the formulation of effective defense operations.
Even with the French alliance, the next several years produced little
more than a stalemate. Seemingly, every step forward (George Rogers
Clark's clearing the Northwest of British forces, a big win against
Tories at Cowpens, South Carolina, and the widespread waging of a
successful guerilla warfare campaign against British troops) was offset
by a stunning setback elsewhere (disheartening winter at Valley Forge,
the loss of 5500 men captured at Charleston, South Carolina, and ceding
several southern states back over to British control). Through all the
uncertainty and misery, George Washington remained the strong, devoted
leader, admired greatly by those whom he led. Had a man of lesser
abilities been in charge, the entire American dream of independence
might have collapsed.
Finally, a combination of circumstances aligned themselves to break the
stalemate. An army of 6000 Frenchmen landed at Newport, Rhode Island in
the summer of 1780, and joined up with Washington at White Plains, New
York. Together, they harassed the British military occupying New York
City, then under the command of General Henry Clinton. The next year,
Washington got the message he had been waiting so long the hear: A
powerful French naval fleet was on its way to America! Meanwhile,
General Lord Cornwallis decided to move his Redcoats northward into
Virginia, basing himself at Yorktown, located just a few miles from
Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in the New World.
Cornwallis was supplied by the Royal British navy operating out of New
|The surrender of British
forces at Yorktown, by eyewitness John Trumbull. British General Lord
Cornwallis was not present. Apparently too ashamed, he sent his second
in command, General Charles O'Hara. General Benjamin Lincoln (on white
horse) receives the surrender, after O'Hara tried to capitulate to the
French on the left. George Washington is on horse, to left of American
As marching British soldiers put down their arms, a band played "The
World Turned Upside Town". The victory at Yorktown, for all practical
purposes, ended the American Revolution. Image courtesy of The
Architect of the Capitol.
Following Washington's instructions, the French
fleet positioned itself
at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to form a blockade, depriving Cornwallis
of his supply line.
In August, 1781, Washington faked an attack on New York, to deceive
Clinton into believing that a major assault on the city was imminent,
then made a mad dash to the northern shores of Chesapeake Bay, where
his army embarked on transport vessels headed south to Yorktown.
By September, Washington had amassed 15,000 troops surrounding
Yorktown, while the French navy was busy defeating a British naval
contingent sent to relieve Cornwallis. For the next month, the noose
tightened around the British position. Realizing he was hopelessly
trapped, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army of 7000 men on October
|Jubilant patriots raise the
flag at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the quest for liberty
began in 1776. Americans today owe much to those brave men and women
who risked everything and sacrificed much to launch our country. Image
courtesy of National Archives.
Yorktown was the last major conflict of the
American Revolution. After
the defeat at Yorktown, it was obvious to everyone that Great Britain
would never again control her former colonies. An army of farmers and
shopkeepers, long snubbed by British elitists as mere peasants, had
defeated the most powerful empire on earth.
Thanks to the skillful negotiating team of John Jay, John Adams, and
Benjamin Franklin, a peace treaty was signed in September 1783, when
Britain formally acknowledged American independence.
For the first time in history, a colonial population had successfully
broken free from its mother country. In its place, a new nation was
born where the concept of individual liberty and representative
government was established, eventually to become the model worldwide
for those seeking freedom from oppression.