The Campaigns of 1777-1779: The North and the West

Philadelphia and Saratoga

The capture of Philadelphia was ultimately a setback for the British because it did not lead to the capture of the Continental Congress or end the rebellion.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the impact the British capture of Philadelphia had on the course of the Revolutionary War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On September 26, 1777, British forces under General William Howe captured Philadelphia, the rebel capital.
  • In late September 1777, the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, relocating to York, Pennsylvania.
  • Though Howe successfully captured the Patriot capital, he neglected the concurrent campaign of General John Burgoyne further north.
  • Without Howe's support, Burgoyne's operation ended in disaster at Saratoga and brought France into the conflict, effectively costing the British the war.
  • General Howe resigned during the occupation of Philadelphia and was replaced by his second-in-command, General Sir Henry Clinton.

Key Terms

  • Philadelphia Campaign: A British initiative in 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War to gain control of Philadelphia, which was then the seat of the Second Continental Congress.
  • John Burgoyne: A British army officer, politician, and dramatist. He first saw action during the Seven Years' War when he participated in several battles, most notably during the Portugal Campaign of 1762.
  • William Howe: A British army officer who rose to become commander-in-chief of British forces during the American War of Independence.

The Philadelphia campaign (1777–1778) was a successful British initiative to gain control of Philadelphia, the seat of the Second Continental Congress. Following his unsuccessful attempt to draw Continental Army General George Washington into a battle in northern New Jersey, British General William Howe instead turned his attention toward Philadelphia.

Portrait of William Howe

William Howe, 1777: Despite his victories in New York and Philadelphia, Howe resigned in October 1777, in response to his role in the British defeat at Saratoga.

In 1777, General Howe began mobilizing his forces for an assault on the city-state. In late August, he landed 15,000 troops at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, 50 miles southwest of Philadelphia. General Washington positioned 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia, but was outflanked and driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The Continental Army suffered over 1,000 casualties in this exchange; the British lost 500. The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia, relocating to York, Pennsylvania. British and Revolutionary forces skirmished west of Philadelphia for several days, but on September 26, Howe marched into Philadelphia unopposed.

Though Howe successfully captured the Patriot capital, he neglected the concurrent campaign of General John Burgoyne further north. Burgoyne believed that isolating New York and New England from the rest of the colonies would result in a decisive victory for the British and possibly even an end to the war. In June 1777, Burgoyne marched south from Quebec toward Albany with 8,000 troops severely weakened by Patriot efforts to cut off British supply lines via raids and scorched earth tactics. By September 19th, Burgoyne won a small tactical victory against Continental General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the First Battle of Saratoga. The cost to the British forces was monumental with a total of 600 casualties, or 10 percent of troops. Desertions began to further reduce the size of the British army and critical supplies, including food, were constantly in short supplies. Skirmishing continued after the battle for days while Burgoyne waited for reinforcements from New York City.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of Patriot militias swelled the ranks of the Continental Army to over 15,000 men. Burgoyne, who had put his army on short rations in early October, decided to launch a desperate reconnaissance mission and attack the left flank of the Continental Army with only 1,700 troops. The British were quickly defeated at the Battle of Bemis Heights, or the Second Battle of Saratoga, with nearly 900 casualties versus the mere 150 suffered by the Continental Army. Burgoyne surrendered his army to the Patriots on October 17, marking the end of British control of the North.

Howe's decision to capture Philadelphia in late September left Burgoyne without the crucial support he needed to defeat the Patriots. As such, Burgoyne's operation ended in disaster for the British at Saratoga and brought France into the war. General Howe resigned during the occupation of Philadelphia and was replaced by his second-in-command, General Sir Henry Clinton. In 1778, Clinton evacuated troops from Philadelphia to increase British defenses in New York City. Washington, however, managed to intercept the evacuating forces at the New Jersey Monmouth Court House, resulting in one of the largest and most infamous battles of the Revolutionary War.


"Residence of Washington in High Street, Philadelphia" by William L. Breton, ca. 1828–30: Howe made this house his headquarters during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

The Aftermath of Saratoga

The Patriot victory at Saratoga, a major turning point in the war, effectively ended the British military presence in the North.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the significance of the colonists' victory at Saratoga

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • British power in the North was substantially weakened, and the British looked to Loyalist supporters in the South as a last hope.
  • Saratoga represented a crucial demonstration of the strength of the Continental Army, which gave France the confidence to enter the war in support of the Patriots.
  • On February 6, 1778, the Treaty of Alliance was signed; in response, England declared war on France on March 17, 1778.
  • The power of French diplomatic relations with other nations, especially Spain, also assisted the Patriot cause.
  • In June 1778, Lord Frederick North, Britain's Prime Minister, dispatched the Carlisle Peace Commission to negotiate for peace but was unwilling to acknowledge the independence of the states.
  • Congress predictably refused the British peace terms.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Alliance: A defensive alliance between France and the United States, formed in 1778, in the midst of the American Revolutionary War. It promised military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future.
  • Lord Frederick North: Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1770 to 1782.
  • Carlisle Peace Commission: A group of British negotiators who were sent to North America in 1778, during the American War of Independence, with an offer of self-rule within the British Empire.

The Battle of Saratoga proved to be a major turning point in the American Revolution. On December 4, 1777, word reached Benjamin Franklin at Versailles that British General John Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga. Two days later, King Louis XVI agreed to enter negotiations for an alliance. The Treaty of Alliance was signed on February 6, 1778, and after learning of the treaty, England declared war on France on March 17. Hostilities began with naval skirmishes between French and British forces off of the French island of Ushant in June.

In 1779, Spain entered the war as a French ally. The strength of France's diplomatic relations with various world powers also influenced the later entry of the Dutch Republic into the war, and declarations of neutrality on the part of other major geopolitical players, including Russia.

The victory at Saratoga also effectively eliminated the British presence in the North. The British quickly withdrew their presence from the region surrounding Saratoga and by the summer of 1778, the war was concentrated in the South.

The British government of Lord Frederick North came under sharp criticism when the news of Burgoyne's surrender reached London. General Burgoyne returned to England on parole in May 1778, where he spent the next two years defending his actions in Parliament and to the press. Eventually, Burgoyne was formally exchanged for more than 1,000 American prisoners.

Portrait of Frederick North

Frederick North, Second Earl of Guildford, by Nathaniel Dance, 1773–1774: Following the Patriot victory at Saratoga, Lord North's government was heavily criticized for their management of the war effort.

This defeat prompted Lord North to issue a proposal for peace terms in Parliament. These terms were brought to the Second Continental Congress by the Carlisle Peace Commission in June 1778 and immediately rejected on the grounds that the British were unwilling to recognize the independence of the states. Though it was a failure, the Carlisle Peace Commission marked the first time the British government formally agreed to negotiate with the Second Continental Congress. In the same month, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered by the British government to abandon his position in Philadelphia and help defend New York City, which had become vulnerable to French naval power. By June 18, Clinton evacuated Philadelphia. General George Washington’s army shadowed Clinton’s, and Washington successfully forced a battle at Monmouth Court House on June 28, the last major battle to take place in the North during the Revolutionary War. By July, Clinton had advanced to New York City and Washington was positioned in White Plains, New York.


Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull, 1822: Burgoyne's surrender was a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

The War in the West

Most battles in the West involved conflict between American Indians and civilian settlers.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the role of American Indians in the Revolutionary War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Revolutionary War, 13,000 American Indians, representing several tribes, fought for the British.
  • The British, based in Detroit, supplied weapons for American Indian raids on western settlements.
  • Patriots did not have enough support from the Continental Army to seize Fort Detroit, as the war effort was concentrated on the East Coast.
  • The conflict escalated over the years, culminating in "The Year of Blood " in 1782.
  • Territorial disputes between settlers and American Indians did not begin or end with the Revolutionary War.
  • Great Britain did not consult their American Indian allies during the peace process at the end of the war and local tribes were not mentioned in treaty terms.

Key Terms

  • Fort Detroit: Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit or Fort Détroit, established by the French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701.
  • Year of Blood: The particularly cruel and violent operations in the west during 1782, with both sides frequently attacking civilian settlements.
  • Ohio Country: The regions of North America west of the Appalachian Mountains and along the upper Ohio River south of Lake Erie; territory ceded to the United States by Britain in the Treaty of Paris.

The Revolutionary War in the West was fought primarily between civilian settlers and American Indians allied with the British. Geographically, the conflict was focused around Detroit, which was held by the British, and south and east of the Ohio River. When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, the Ohio River marked a tenuous border between the American colonies and the American Indians of the Ohio Country. Ohio Indians—Shawnees, Mingos, Delawares, and Wyandots—were divided over how to respond to the war. Though some Native Americans were on friendly terms with settlers, many viewed the United States as a threat to their territory. Approximately 13,000 Native Americans, representing several Indian nations, fought for the British.


Map of the Ohio Country: This map depicts the battles and massacres that occurred within the Ohio Country between 1775 and 1794.

In 1763, the British Crown issued a proclamation forbidding British colonists to settle west of the Appalachian mountain range. Settlers and land speculators in Britain and America objected to this restriction, leading to treaties with American Indians in 1768 that opened up land for settlement south of the Ohio River.

Most of the action in the West consisted of escalating series of retaliations between frontier settlers and local indigenous populations. Land disputes were common as territorial boundaries established by treaty were frequently not honored by both settlers and American Indian tribes. Shawnees, who did not take part in the treaties of 1768, organized a confederacy of western Indian nations with the intention of preventing the loss of their lands. This confederacy gained strength in 1775, with the support of the British.

Early in the war, isolated settlers and hunters became frequent targets of attack, compelling many to return to the East. By late spring 1776, fewer than 200 colonists remained in Kentucky, gathered in a few fortified settlements. The situation escalated in 1777, as the British launched a major offensive into the West from Canada. In order to provide a strategic diversion for operations in the Northeast, the British in Detroit began recruiting and arming American Indian war parties to raid American settlements.

The intensity of the conflict increased as settlers retaliated. In 1778, settlers decided that offensive operations were necessary to secure their western border. Yet the first American expedition into the Ohio Country was a disaster, ending in a blundered attack on peaceful Delaware Indians. Over the next several years of the war, both sides launched raids against each other, usually targeting settlements. Patriot efforts to move against Fort Detroit were undermined due to the lack of ready troops and because escalating raids had created more determined enemies of the American Indians.

The year 1782 was famously dubbed "The Year of Blood" due to the level of cruelty displayed in the raids conducted by both settlers and American Indian nations. In March 1782, in one notorious incident called the Gnadenhütten massacre, a peaceful community of Christian Delawares was brutally executed by militiamen. The Delawares, numbering about 100 and mostly comprised of women and children, were executed by 160 Pennsylvania militiamen with hammer blows to the head. In a subsequent campaign led by Colonel William Crawford against American Indian communities along the Sandusky River in May 1782, Crawford was captured and tortured in retaliation for the Gnadenhütten massacre. Crawford’s execution was widely publicized in the United States, which worsened the already strained relationship between American Indians and European Americans.

In August 1782, British General Caldwell led 300 American Indians into Kentucky in the Battle of Blue Licks, delivering a devastating defeat to 182 militiamen in the state. The Battle of Blue Licks was one of the final battles of the American Revolutionary War and occurred 10 months after Lord Charles Cornwallis’ famous surrender at Yorktown, which had effectively ended the war in the East. It was also the worst defeat Kentuckians had experienced during the frontier war. Peace negotiations between the United States and Great Britain created a temporary respite in hostilities during The Year of Blood, but in November 1782, Brigadier General George Rogers Clark delivered the final blow in The Year of Blood, destroying several Shawnee towns in the Ohio Country.

The war in the Northwest was essentially a draw. In the war's final years, settlements were destroyed on both sides, but territory could not be held once claimed. Although American Indians had been pushed back from the Ohio River and were now settled primarily in the Lake Erie basin, settlers could not occupy the abandoned lands for fear of further raids. In the final treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the Ohio Country was granted to the United States. Great Britain did not consult American Indians during the peace process, and local tribes were not mentioned in the treaty's terms. For the American Indians, the hostilities would continue under a different name: the Northwest Indian War. The only difference between this conflict and the previous one was that the American Indians could no longer rely upon the explicit support of the British.


Indian Attack on the Village of Saint Louis, 1780: This mural depicts a British force, mostly consisting of American Indians, attacking St. Louis.

The Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge

General George Washington and his army made camp at Valley Forge from December 1777 to June 1778, to protect Pennsylvania from the British.

Learning Objectives

Identify the challenges the Continental Army faced at Valley Forge

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Valley Forge, 25 miles from Philadelphia, was the site of Washington's winter quarters from December 1777 to June 1778. Washington petitioned Congress for supplies and provisions but received no support.
  • Disease quickly spread in the terrible conditions of the crowded camp, and Washington lost 2,500 of his 12,000 troops. Approximately 500 Regimental Camp Followers, women supporting the war effort, assisted with foraging and cleaned and mended uniforms.
  • The troops quartered at Valley Forge received much needed training from Prussian drillmaster Baron Friedrich von Steuben.

Key Terms

  • Baron Friedrich von Steuben: Prussian-born inspector general and major general of the Continental Army, responsible for training Washington's troops during the winter of 1777–1778. Von Steuben's highly effective training was a major asset to the Continental Army.
  • Valley Forge: Site in Pennsylvania of the military camp of the Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War.
  • Regimental Camp Followers: Supporters of the Continental Army, mostly family members of the soldiers, who offered services such as laundry and foraging.

Following the Battle of White Marsh, the last major engagement of 1777, General George Washington 's troops moved to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, to wait out the winter. This location was chosen to protect the interior of Pennsylvania from the British.

A Harsh Winter

Conditions at Valley Forge were extremely bleak. Due to a shortage of supplies that left approximately one in three men without shoes, many soldiers left a trail of bloody footprints behind them during the march into town. Meat and bread were also in short supply, and soldiers often supplemented or replaced meals with items such as “firecakes” (a tasteless mixture of water and flour) or “pepper pot soup” (a black pepper flavored tripe broth). The snow that collected around the camp was too sparse to be melted into water, and the damp conditions that resulted allowed disease to fester and spread easily. Undernourished, poorly clothed, and living in crowded, damp quarters, the army was ravaged by sickness.

Typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia were among the many diseases that soldiers suffered from. Because of shortages of clothing and blankets, many soldiers injured from previous battles died from exposure. The shortages were so extensive that at one point during the encampment at Valley Forge, 4,000 men were listed as unfit for duty, and mutiny and desertions were ongoing concerns. By winter’s end, 2,500 men died as a result of the harsh conditions. The animals in the camp fared no better. General Henry Knox, Washington’s Chief of Artillery, wrote that hundreds of horses either starved to death or perished as a result of exhaustion. By the end of winter, approximately 700 horses had died.

Although Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, the Continental Congress was unable to provide supplemental supplies due to their inability to efficiently coordinate funding and war support from among the 13 states. Criticism of Washington’s leadership was at an all-time high in light of the harsh conditions experienced by the Continental Army. Anti-Washington movements arose and a few soldiers even advocated replacing Washington with General Horatio Gates, following his success at the Battles of Saratoga. Led by Brigadier General Thomas Conway and referred to as the Conway Cabal, this group of soldiers worked behind the scenes to replace Washington with Gates, damaging Washington’s political cache. Meanwhile, many in the Continental Congress began to complain that Washington had left the surrounding countryside unprotected by sequestering his troops to Valley Forge, further hurting Washington’s chances of gaining additional supplies for what was seen as a poorly executed military venture.

Regimental Camp Followers, mostly consisting of the wives, children, mothers, and sisters of the soldiers, however, offered some support where Congress could not. Camp Followers often served as laundresses, cleaning and mending the soldiers' uniforms. Approximately 500 women spent the winter at Valley Forge. These women gained half the rations and wages of a soldier, as well as a half pension after the war. Children received quarter rations.

A Change in the Tide

On February 6, 1778, the French signed an alliance treaty with the 13 colonies, which greatly enhanced the military and monetary support the Continental Army needed to continue the war effort. A celebration of the alliance pact was organized in Valley Forge on May 6, 1778. Soldiers were jubilant and performed drill formations and fired salutes in honor of the French. The celebrations were observed by Washington and other military leaders and all soldiers were provided one gill of rum at the conclusion of the festivities.

Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a skilled Prussian drillmaster, was responsible for developing and carrying out an effective training program for Washington's troops following the winter. Many of Washington's troops lacked proper training, a debilitating weakness in their campaigns. Von Steuben, formerly in the service of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was a masterful instructor and greatly increased the discipline and precision of the Continental Army when he arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778. Although he faced many obstacles including a language barrier and the lack of any pre-existing American military training manuals, Von Steuben proved to be an extremely valuable asset to Washington’s forces, teaching soldiers how to aim muskets accurately, charge with bayonets, and maneuver together in compact ranks.

Following France’s entry into the war, British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to leave Philadelphia and move to New York City, which was under threat by the French navy. Philadelphia was evacuated by the British on June 18, 1778. On June 19, 1778, after six months at Valley Forge, the Continental Army marched in pursuit of Clinton's troops up toward New York.

The painting shows Washington sitting on a horse, with many men surrounding him. One of the men is stoking a fire, while another brings more wood. There is snow on the ground, and the flag waves against a gray sky.

Washington at Valley Forge, by Edward P. Moran: Washington's troops endured harsh conditions at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777–1778.

France and Spain in the Revolutionary War

Following the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, France openly provided arms and funding to the Americans and engaged in full-scale war with Britain.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate France and Spain's impact on the Revolutionary War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The French offered covert assistance to the Patriots prior to entering the war.
  • The British defeat at Saratoga persuaded the French of the strength of the Continental Army and directly influenced King Louis XVI's decision to recognize the United States and sign a treaty of alliance with Congress.
  • France formally recognized the United States on February 6, 1778, with the Treaty of Alliance. This prompted Britain to declare war on France on March 17, 1778. The French navy was particularly helpful to the Continental forces, who were unable to contend with the formidable British navy.
  • In 1780, the comte de Rochambeau was appointed commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force and brought 7,000 French troops to New England.
  • In August 1781, General George Washington and Rochambeau led the Celebrated March of combined Franco-American forces south to the siege of Yorktown.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Alliance: A defensive alliance between France and the United States, formed in 1778, in the midst of the American Revolutionary War. The treaty promised military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future.
  • Celebrated March: The 680-mile march of the combined Continental Army of Washington and the French Expeditionary Force under comte de Rochambeau from Newport, Rhode Island, to Virginia, ending at the decisive siege at Yorktown in 1781.
  • Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau: Commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, which fought alongside the Continental Army in America.

Following the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was well received in France, perceived by many to be the incarnation of the Enlightenment spirit. Benjamin Franklin, dispatched to France in December 1776 to rally support, was warmly welcomed. But the French also had other reasons for supporting the Patriots. France bitterly resented their loss in the Seven Years’ War, in which they fought against Great Britain and lost a number of their territories in North America as well as favorable trading status in ports along the Indian subcontinent. The French were keen on ensuring that the British did not tip the balance of power further in their favor, and many in France perceived the American Revolution as an opportunity to strip Britain of their North American possessions in retaliation for French losses a decade previously.

Prior to France's official involvement, King Louis XVI and the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, the comte de Vergennes, authorized merchants to covertly sell gunpowder and ammunition to the Patriots. French ports also accommodated Continental Navy warships that acted against British merchant ships. France provided significant economic aid and technical assistance in terms of military strategy. Individual French volunteers, moved by the prospect of glory in battle or animated by sincere ideals of liberty and republicanism, joined the American army. Some of these volunteers included Pierre Charles L’Enfant and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette enlisted in 1777, at the age of 20 in defiance of King Louis XVI’s orders. He became an aide to General George Washington and a combat general. Most importantly, the charming young aristocrat helped to solidify a favorable American stance toward France and gave legitimacy to the war among potential European supporters.

In 1777, news of the Patriot victory at the Battle of Saratoga was received with great enthusiasm in France. Following this victory, King Louis XVI immediately negotiated an alliance with Benjamin Franklin. France formally recognized the United States on February 6, 1778, with the Treaty of Alliance. The treaty provided open support from the French army, navy, and treasury. As a result, Britain declared war on France on March 17, 1778.

France was also instrumental in securing Spain’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. On April 12, 1779, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez. Under the terms of the treaty, France agreed to aid in the capture of Gibraltar, the Floridas, and the island of Minorca in return for Spain’s agreement to join in France’s war against Great Britain. In June 1779, Spain launched the unsuccessful Great Siege of Gibraltar, the first and longest Spanish action in the Revolutionary War, which lasted until February 1783. In 1781, the Spanish defeated the British at the Battle of Pensacola, giving the Spanish control of West Florida. In 1782, Minorca surrendered to a combined Franco-Spanish force, restoring the territory to Spain nearly 80 years after it had initially been captured by the British. The French navy provided valuable assistance to the Patriots and engaged British naval forces several times in 1778 and 1779, in European and North American waters. Under François-Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly, comte de Grasse, the French defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, ensuring the success of allied ground forces in the Siege of Yorktown, the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War.

The painting shows a number of burning ships at the Battle of Ushant.

1778 Battle of Ushant by Théodore Gudin, ca. 1848: The Battle of Ushant was the first naval engagement between Britain and France in the Revolutionary War.

In 1780, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, was appointed commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force. He was given command of approximately 7,000 French troops and sent to join Washington's Continental Army. Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780, and remained there for a year to support the French fleet blockaded by the British in Narragansett Bay. In July 1781, Rochambeau's force left Rhode Island, marching across Connecticut to join Washington on the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry, New York. In mid-August 1781, Washington and Rochambeau led the Celebrated March of combined Franco-American forces towards Virginia and the siege of Yorktown.

Portrait of Rochambeau

Rochambeau at Versailles: The comte de Rochambeau served as commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, which supported the Continental Army.


Second Battle of the Virginia Capes by V. Zveg: This painting depicts French (left) and British ships (right) at the battle of the Chesapeake.

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