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American Revolution: 1776–1783

Tactics and Key Battles of the American Revolution

Military Strategies

The British and the Patriots adapted their military strategies as conflict issues evolved in the American Revolution.

    British strategy evolved during the American Revolution and consisted of three different phases. When the first skirmishes broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, the British saw the conflict primarily as a local rebellion. They initially hoped a simple show of force would prevent the hostilities from spreading to other parts of the colonies. However, British losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill and rising revolutionary sentiment outside of Massachusetts soon forced the British to find a second strategy.

    By 1776 the British had settled on a new tactic: divide and conquer. They intended to establish a base of command in New York City—where Loyalist sentiment was fairly high. From New York they would move north to Albany, converging with additional forces traveling south from Canada. The idea was to cut off New England, still considered the focal point of the rebellion, from the rest of the colonies.

    The British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, however, upended this strategy and completely changed the war. France was still stinging from its loss to Great Britain in the French and Indian War of 1754–63. These ill feelings helped prompt the French to provide assistance to the Americans. Spain soon followed suit. Suddenly, Britain was no longer fighting a war on just one front. Other, more lucrative British colonies in India and the Caribbean were now at risk. Britain was forced to withdraw large numbers of troops from America to deal with this new threat.

    This led to yet another change in British tactics: the so-called "Southern Strategy." Britain hoped to consolidate its power in the South by recruiting the large number of Loyalists in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. From there the British hoped to move north through the middle colonies and, finally, back to New England.

    American combat strategy was much simpler. After an initial phase of bold attacks in the earliest months of the war, Americans sought to avoid major battles. They engaged in guerrilla warfare, or attacks carried out by small groups of individuals. Using this tactic the Patriots sought to wear down the British through a war of attrition. The use of guerrilla warfare was a particularly effective tactic in this regard. American strategy changed once more after the French joined the conflict. The Patriot forces could again act more aggressively, culminating in the Siege of Yorktown and eventual victory.

    Key Battles and Military Events

    A number of key battles—including those at Trenton, Saratoga, and Kings Mountain—shaped the course of the American Revolution.

      Events of the American Revolution included hundreds of skirmishes and battles—some lasting just hours and others developing into sieges of days, weeks, and months. Between 1776 and 1783—the heaviest period of conflict—major battles were waged in North America from Quebec in the north to Savannah, Georgia, in the south.

      Although the war's initial conflicts broke out in Massachusetts, most combat occurred in New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina. There were clashes in the other colonies and adjoining territory as well. Once France, Spain, and the Netherlands entered the conflict, military campaigns were carried out on land and at sea in several areas around the world. Battles occurred in the waters around Great Britain, as well as in Europe and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas.

      Both the Patriots and the British scored resounding victories and defeats. The aftermath of such battles caused one side or the other to change its military strategy and affected the direction of the war. Some significant military events and battles that influenced the course of the war include:

      • Battle of Quebec: Following defeat in Quebec, the Americans made no further attempts to incorporate Canada into their revolution.
      • Battle of Trenton: Winning this battle was crucial to the Patriots' morale, as it followed several crushing defeats. Occurring a few days before the Continental Army's reenlistment deadline, it probably helped retain American soldiers who otherwise would not have reenlisted.
      • Battles of Saratoga: Victory in these two encounters demonstrated the Patriots could overcome their larger, better-trained foe—which convinced France the United States was an ally worth supporting.
      • Winter at Valley Forge: The winter encampment, though arduous, greatly benefitted Washington's troops through the military training provided there. Foreign army officers the Marquis de Lafayette and Friedrich von Steuben drilled the Patriots in maneuvers—transforming them into professional soldiers fully prepared to conquer the British forces.
      • Battle of Kings Mountain: This encounter against a Loyalist force led by a seasoned British general ended in a victory for the Patriots. The Loyalists' defeat damaged British morale and hindered British general Cornwallis's progress toward North Carolina—which led to his move into Yorktown.

      Key Events and Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-80

      Land and sea battles of the American Revolution stretched along a front over 1,400 miles in length.

      Battle of Quebec

      The Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775, marked the Patriot forces' first significant defeat.

        The American invasion of Canada began in 1775 with the goal of capturing British strongholds, including forts and heavily defended cities. Montreal fell to American general Richard Montgomery and his soldiers on November 13.

        Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold, an American colonel, prepared to launch a second assault—this time on the city of Quebec. Arnold led his troops through Maine into Canada. There his forces were to take part in a joint attack with troops led by General Montgomery. Arnold's soldiers were to approach from the east, while Montgomery's force was to advance from the west. The Battle of Quebec began when the Patriots attacked in the early morning hours of December 31. General Montgomery was immediately killed in a skirmish on the outskirts of the city. As Colonel Arnold's group attacked, he suffered a gunshot to his leg and was forced to leave a subordinate, Captain Daniel Morgan, in charge of his troops. That initial encounter left the Patriots defeated, with over 400 American soldiers taken captive.

        During the next four months, Benedict Arnold's dwindling forces kept up their siege of Quebec, doing their best to prevent people and supplies from moving in and out of the city. The Americans were forced to abandon their efforts on May 6, 1776, when British general John Burgoyne arrived by ship with over 4,000 reinforcements. Arnold and his troops retreated to Fort Ticonderoga in New York. This drawn-out and unsuccessful attempt to capture Quebec dissuaded the Patriots from mounting additional invasions of Canada. Arnold himself, though, was hailed as a hero and promoted to general.

        Battle of Trenton

        American general George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River late on December 25, 1776—launching an attack on Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey.

          On Christmas night 1776 General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, led 2,400 troops across the icy Delaware River into New Jersey. Once across the river, Washington's forces endured heavy snow and sleet while marching nine miles to Trenton. There, 1,500 Hessians—German soldiers from Hesse—held a small British outpost under the command of Colonel Johann Rall. These soldiers were mercenaries—soldiers for hire—whom the British were paying to fight against the Americans.

          Washington's soldiers arrived in Trenton in the early hours of December 26—striking the Hessian troops in a surprise attack. The Hessians were unprepared, as Colonel Rall had not expected the Patriots to mount an assault in such adverse weather. Within an hour, Washington's men had defeated the smaller Hessian forces and captured Trenton. The Americans inflicted significant casualties: over 100 Hessian soldiers were either wounded or killed. Washington also captured over 900 Hessian soldiers. Meanwhile, the Americans suffered fewer than 10 casualties.

          Washington decided not to hold the city. He and his exhausted troops returned across the Delaware River, and Trenton was recaptured by the British within a week. Despite this fact, Washington’s success at Trenton raised morale, lifting the spirits of the Continental Army and Patriot supporters alike.

          Battle of Brandywine

          Following the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, Washington's troops retreated to Germantown, Pennsylvania—making possible the British occupation of Philadelphia.

            One of the main goals of British general William Howe was to capture Philadelphia. Since the Continental Congress—the Americans' governing body—was located in Philadelphia, capturing the city would deal the Patriots a huge blow.

            At the same time, Howe was in pursuit of George Washington and his troops. Washington had managed to avoid a direct battle with Howe. However, that would change on September 11, 1777, at the Battle of Brandywine.

            Washington and 15,000 American troops prepared for battle in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles south of Philadelphia. Washington planned to use nearby Brandywine Creek to his advantage. He stationed troops at fords along the Brandywine to prevent the British from crossing at these shallow points in the creek. This, Washington thought, would force the British to fight his forces in Chadds Ford—where Patriots held the high ground.

            Unknown to the Americans, Loyalist spies shared Washington's plan with General Howe and identified additional fords where the British could cross the Brandywine. Howe decided to divide his 16,000 troops into two groups. The first group confronted the Americans in Chadds Ford, just as Washington had planned.

            Meanwhile, Howe's second group led a surprise attack on the Americans. Washington's troops were caught off guard and were eventually forced to retreat to Germantown, Pennsylvania. The British did not pursue Washington but were able to capture Philadelphia by September 26.

            In total, over 200 Americans died, more than 500 were wounded, and 400 were captured. Fewer than 100 British and Hessian soldiers died, but nearly 500 were wounded.

            Battles of Saratoga

            During autumn 1777 the Patriots' victory in the Battles of Saratoga encouraged France to enter the conflict as an ally of the Americans.

              The Battles of Saratoga were two separate battles fought near Saratoga, New York. These encounters involved the troops of British general John Burgoyne and American generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold.

              In summer 1777 General Burgoyne began moving his British troops from Canada into New York. His goals were to reach Albany and launch an attack that would isolate New England from the other states. Heading south toward Albany, Burgoyne successfully captured the American Fort Ticonderoga in July.

              On September 19, General Burgoyne launched an attack on American forces south of Saratoga, New York. Led by American general Benedict Arnold, a small group of American soldiers encountered the British near the farm of John Freeman. Freeman was a Loyalist, or supporter of the British. Burgoyne and his men eventually overcame the Americans, but not without suffering over 600 casualties, nearly double the Americans' losses. The Patriot troops withdrew at the end of the conflict. This first Battle of Saratoga became known as the Battle of Freeman's Farm.

              On October 7—no longer willing to wait for reinforcements—Burgoyne launched an attack on the American troops. This second Battle of Saratoga took place about a mile from the site of the first conflict. From their vantage point on the high ground of Bemis Heights, the Americans repelled the British. General Gates's force of 20,000 soldiers surrounded Burgoyne's troops, leading the British to surrender and retreat to Saratoga. Known as the Battle of Bemis Heights, the encounter caused significant damage to the British forces. They suffered 1,200 casualties and the capture of nearly 6,000 soldiers.

              The Battles of Saratoga are considered a turning point in the American Revolution. The Patriots' victory secured an alliance with the French and the commitment of French troops to the conflict.

              Winter at Valley Forge

              In 1777–78 George Washington and the Continental Army faced harsh conditions during their winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

                Following the Patriots' retreat from Brandywine and the British capture of Philadelphia, Washington and his 11,000 troops badly needed a place to regroup. They set up camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Schuylkill River. Located in a rural area just 22 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Valley Forge provided several advantages. The site was easily defensible from attack, and its proximity to farms and established trade routes promised ready access to supplies.
                The respect George Washington earned by sharing the hardships of Valley Forge with his troops may have held down the number of desertions.
                Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-06988
                The encampment's closeness to Philadelphia helped Washington assume an offensive position against the British. The Continental Army, aided by the Pennsylvania militia, was able to disrupt the flow of supplies into Philadelphia. At the same time, they maintained small-scale attacks on the British.

                Despite Valley Forge's advantages, winter in the encampment posed numerous challenges for the Continental Army. Washington and his troops arrived on December 19, 1777. The soldiers were immediately instructed to begin building wooden huts. The ramshackle housing, however, did very little to keep out the exceptionally harsh cold and snow.

                The Americans were also faced with numerous shortages. Blankets, shoes, and clothing were in short supply: many soldiers wrapped their feet in rags to wade through the heavy snow. The camp had very little food—not nearly enough to feed its population of 11,000 soldiers and some 500 women and children. Though farms were nearby, severe weather had made the roads impassable, and supplies could not reach the encampment.

                Washington confronted yet another challenge: loss of troops. Numerous Continental Army recruits left the service as their enlistments expired. Others, however, chose to abandon their posts in the military and return home. Many of the soldiers who remained at Valley Forge were struck by diseases that spread throughout the camp.

                Following winter's hardships, spring of 1778 marked a turning point in the combat. Influenced by American victories in the Battles of Saratoga, France entered the war to assist the Patriots. French supplies reached Valley Forge in early spring.

                At the same time, the American forces underwent significant changes. The Marquis de Lafayette, a French sympathizer, and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a German military leader, helped train the Continental Army. Friedrich von Steuben's instructions proved particularly effective as he drilled troops on how to use bayonets and how to move in formation.

                When the Patriots left Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, they were ready to resume combat with a new sense of determination.

                Bonhomme Richard

                Captain John Paul Jones, commander of Continental Navy ship Bonhomme Richard, captured British navy vessel Serapis near the coast of England in September 1779.

                  After France entered the American Revolution, King Louis XVI donated a merchant ship, Duc de Duras, to the Continental Navy. American captain John Paul Jones was put in charge of the craft, which he had refitted as a 40-gun warship. To honor his mentor, American statesman Benjamin Franklin, Jones renamed the ship Bonhomme Richard. This was a French translation of Poor Richard—Franklin's pen name. As the American Commissioner in Paris, Franklin had helped persuade France to join the war on the Patriots' behalf.

                  Jones led a small Continental Navy fleet patrolling for British ships off the coast of England. One of Jones's most successful encounters occurred on September 23, 1779, when Bonhomme Richard attacked Serapis, a British warship escorting several supply-laden merchant ships.

                  The 14-year-old Bonhomme Richard was at a disadvantage against the brand new Serapis. The British craft carried more guns than Jones's ship and was staffed with an experienced captain and crew.

                  During a battle lasting over three hours, the ships became entangled in each other's lines, and the Bonhomme Richard's crew tied the two craft together. Bonhomme Richard, struck numerous times by cannon fire, began sinking. British captain Richard Pearson of the Serapis observed confusion among Bonhomme Richard's crew and shouted to them asking whether the ship meant to surrender. Jones immediately roared his response, "I have not yet begun to fight!"

                  A short while later, one of Jones's crew launched a grenade onto Serapis, and the resulting explosion forced Captain Pearson to surrender. The Americans swiftly boarded Serapis and soon witnessed Bonhomme Richard's disappearance under the waves. In this hard-fought duel Jones became the first Continental Navy commander to capture a sizable British warship.

                  Battle of Kings Mountain

                  The Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780 marked a key American victory against the British in the South.

                    The Battle of Kings Mountain resulted from the British campaign in the South. After capturing Charleston, South Carolina, the British turned their attention to controlling North Carolina, including the wilderness areas west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

                    British major Patrick Ferguson entered North Carolina leading a force of 1,000 Loyalists—or Americans sympathetic to the British cause. Ferguson became concerned when he heard a large force of Patriots was hunting for his Loyalist contingent. Concerned, Ferguson sent a message requesting additional troops. He then led his troops to the summit of Kings Mountain, a wooded ridge near the border between North and South Carolina. Ferguson divided his force into two camps—one located at each end of the ridge.

                    American colonel William Campbell was the leader of the Patriot forces. He had rallied several local militias—a force of approximately 900 men. Campbell learned the British were encamped on Kings Mountain and intended to hit them in a surprise assault. He divided the Patriots into eight separate groups, which surrounded and attacked Ferguson's troops on October 7, 1780. The Loyalists were forced to surrender, and Ferguson was killed in the conflict. Though the Battle of Kings Mountain was relatively small, it helped erode British control in the South and contributed to their ultimate defeat.