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Europe and the American Revolutionary War

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Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull

Architect of the Capitol

Summary

Fought between 1775 and 1783, the American Revolutionary War / American War of Independence was primarily a conflict between the British Empire and some of its American colonists, who triumphed and created a new nation: the United States of America. France played a vital role in aiding the colonists, but accrued great debt in doing so, partly causing the French Revolution.

Causes of the American Revolution

Britain may have triumphed in the French and Indian war of 1754 - 1763 - which was fought in North America on behalf of Anglo-American colonists - but it had spent considerable sums to do so. The British government decided that the colonies of North America should contribute more to its defence and raised taxes. Some colonists were unhappy with this – merchants among them were especially upset- and British heavy handedness exacerbated a belief that the British weren’t allowing them enough rights in return, even though some colonists had no problems owning slaves. This situation was summed up in the revolutionary slogan “No Taxation without Representation”. Colonists were also unhappy that Britain was preventing them from expanding further out into America, partly as a result of agreements with Native Americans agreed after the Pontiac rebellion of 1763 – 4, and the Quebec Act of 1774, which expanded Quebec to cover vast areas of what is now the USA. The latter allowed French Catholics to retain their language and religion, further angering the predominantly Protestant colonists.

More on why Britain attempted to Tax American Colonists

Tensions rose between the two sides, fanned by expert colonial propagandists and politicians, and finding expression in mob violence and brutal attacks by rebel colonists. Two sides developed: pro British loyalists and anti-British ‘patriots’. In December 1773, citizens in Boston dumped a consignment of tea into a harbour in protest at taxes. The British responded by closing down Boston Harbour and imposing limits on civilian life. As a result, all but one of the colonies gathered in the ‘First Continental Congress’ in 1774, promoting a boycott on British goods. Provincial congresses formed, and militia were raised for war.

Causes of the American Revolution in More Depth

1775: The Powder Keg Explodes

On April 19th 1775 the British governor of Massachusetts sent a small group of troops to confiscate powder and arms from colonial militiamen, and also arrest ‘troublemakers’ who were agitating for war. However, the militia were given notice in the form of Paul Revere and other riders, and were able to prepare. When the two sides met in Lexington someone, unknown, fired, initiating a battle. The ensuing Battles of Lexington, Concord and after saw the militia – crucially including large numbers of Seven Year War veterans - harass the British troops back to their base in Boston. The war had begun, and more militia gathered outside Boston. When the Second Continental Congress met there was still hope of peace, and they weren’t yet convinced about declaring independence, but they named George Washington, who had happened to be present at the start of the French Indian war, as leader of their forces. Believing that militias alone would not be enough, he started to raise a Continental Army. After a hard fought battle at Bunker Hill, the British could not break the militia or the siege of Boston, and King George III declared the colonies in rebellion; in reality, they had been for some time.

Two sides, not clearly Defined

This wasn’t a clear cut war between the British and the American colonists. Between a fifth and a third of the colonists supported Britain and remained loyal, while it’s estimated another third remained neutral where possible. As such it has been called a civil war; at the close of the war eighty thousand colonists loyal to Britain fled from the US. Both sides had experienced veterans of the French Indian war among their soldiers, including major players like Washington. Throughout the war both sides used militia, standing troops and ‘irregulars’. By 1779 Britain had 7000 loyalists under arms. (Mackesy, The War for America, p. 255)

War Swings Back and Forth

A rebel attack on Canada was defeated. The British pulled out of Boston by March 1776 and then prepared for an attack on New York; on July 4th 1776 the thirteen colonies declared their independence as the United States of America. The British plan was to make a swift counter strike with their army, isolating perceived key rebel areas, and then use a naval blockade to force the Americans to come to terms before Britain’s European rivals joined the Americans. British troops landed that September, defeating Washington and pushing his army back, allowing the British to take New York. However, after problems Washington was able to rally his forces and win at Trenton - where he defeated German troops working for Britain – keeping morale up among the rebels, and damaging loyalist support. The naval blockade failed because of overstretch, allowing valuable supplies of arms to get into the US and keep the war alive. At this point the British military had failed to destroy the Continental Army and appeared to have lost every valid lesson of the French – Indian war.

More on Germans in the American Revolutionary War

The British then pulled out of New Jersey – alienating their loyalists – and moved in to Pennsylvania, where they won a victory at Brandywine, allowing them to take the colonial capital of Philadelphia. They defeated Washington again. However, they didn’t pursue their advantage effectively and the loss of the US capital was small. At the same time British troops tried to advance down from out of Canada, but Burgoyne and his army was cut off, outnumbered and forced to surrender at Saratoga, thanks in part to Burgoyne’s pride, arrogance, desire for success and resulting poor judgement, as well as the failure of British commanders to co-operate.

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