The American Revolution
Few foreign people believed that the upstart Americans could win a war against the British. The English did have the world’s most powerful navy, a huge army already in place in North America, and a large mercenary force of German Hessian soldiers ready to fight, but fighting on the continent proved difficult. And despite the fact that the Continental Army had trouble recruiting and training soldiers, their perseverance eventually prevailed.
Washington had to rely on a small volunteer force. The army was never larger than 20,000, and enlistments averaged about three months. Even with that, desertion was common and troops often refused to fight outside their own colonies. Additionally, Washington had access to local militia units, who did not play by the normal rules of war, and the British still had not learned that lesson. The ideas of set battle--volley fire and then close in and duke it out with bayonets--did not work when the enemy used hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
Washington understood that he just needed to outlast the British, not necessarily defeat them in every battle. The British pushed the Continental Army out of Massachusetts and New York and into Pennsylvania in 1777, but it did not matter because Washington did not have any center of importance that he absolutely had to defend.
Battle of Saratoga
The first military success for the colonists came at Saratoga in October 1777 when more than 5,700 British troops surrendered. The Battle of Saratoga proved a turning point in the war. It boosted the morale of the colonists but more importantly, it brought the French into the war as America’s ally. In early December 1777 news of America’s victory at Saratoga reached Paris, where it was celebrated as if it were a French victory. By the next year, America signed two treaties with the French: one offered trade concessions and the other created an alliance. Both parties agreed to fight until American independence was won.
French intervention proved critical but it also led to a world war and before long, England was at war with France, Spain, and the Dutch in addition to warring against the Americans. The fighting spread far beyond North America to the Mediterranean, Africa, India, the West Indies, and the oceans.
Contemporary French illustration of the Battle of Yorktown
Siege of Yorktown
After Saratoga, the prime minister knew the war was not winnable but the king refused to surrender or make peace. Battles continued to be fought, first in a series of western campaigns and then in the south in Georgia and South Carolina. Although the American navy was small, it irritated the British fleet, and Captain John Paul Jones gained fame in his victory against a British frigate off the English coast. When ordered to surrender, Jones claimed, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Though heroic, Jones’s response did little but annoy the British. At a crucial moment, and thanks to the French navy, the British lost control of the Chesapeake waters. Washington’s men joined French troops and marched toward Yorktown, Virginia, while a French contingent sailed into the Chesapeake. With more than 16,000 combined forces, the Americans and French greatly outnumbered the British and lay siege on Yorktown. On October 17, 1781, exactly four years after Saratoga, the British under General Cornwallis sued for peace. The war was over! Click on the following map to learn more about the battles fought during the American Revolution.
Signature page, Treaty of Paris
The Treaty of Paris
The Continental Congress named a five-man commission to negotiate a peace settlement, but only three members were active. John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin all worked to hammer out some kind of agreement. The treaty, known as the Treaty of Paris, was signed on September 3, 1783. Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States and agreed to a Mississippi River boundary in the west. The last British troops left New York, and the American army disbanded.