American War of Independence, 1776-1783

The Treaty of Paris of 1763 which ended the Seven Years War left Britain in control of Canada and the 13 American colonies. Politically and culturally, Britain and the colonies seemed very close, but the picture changed rapidly in the 1770s. Several reasons lay behind this. First, Britain’s attempt to make the colonies contribute more to the cost of their own defence. Second, some American merchants sought to break free of controls imposed by the pro-British elite. Third, indecisive British foreign policy which swung between harshness and surrender. Finally, the influence of radicals such as Sam Adams and Paul Revere who wanted a break with Britain, though they were opposed in this by many of their countrymen.

Events such as the Boston ‘tea party’ of 1773, when British-taxed tea was thrown into the sea, marked the gradual descent into armed conflict between patriot (anti-British) and loyalist (pro-British) sympathisers. Significant, too, was the takeover of the colonial militias by officers sympathetic to the American patriots’ cause. In April 1775, urged on by London, the British commander in chief in North America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, attempted to lance the patriot boil. A skirmish at Lexington Green in April 1775 was followed by larger engagements at Concord and Bunker Hill, near Boston which was placed under siege by the patriots. A few months later, patriot representatives of the 13 colonies appointed George Washington, a wealthy Virginia landowner, as commander of their armed forces. Washington formed the Continental Army and the conflict rapidly escalated into full-scale war, with both sides using a mix of regular soldiers, militias and irregulars.

Washington enjoyed an early success when he forced the British to evacuate Boston by sea, but a patriot attempt to invade Canada failed miserably. Nor could Washington do anything to prevent a 30,000-strong army under General Sir William Howe – Gage’s successor – from capturing New York in the summer of 1776. However, victory at Trenton at the end of the year breathed new life into the patriots.

In 1777 Philadelphia fell to the British, but an attempt to invade from Canada by thrusting down the Hudson Valley towards New York and cutting off New England, went badly wrong. As a result Lieutenant General John Burgoyne was forced to surrender with his entire army at Saratoga. This encouraged the French, anxious to gain revenge for the Seven Years War, to join the conflict. Spain and Holland followed suit, and in 1780 a wider League of Armed Neutrality was formed, to resist British attempts to stop and search merchant shipping.

The conflict dragged on. The British withdrew from Philadelphia and fighting spread to the south. In 1780, Howe’s replacement, General Sir Henry Clinton moved by sea to take Charleston, the biggest British victory of the war. He then returned to New York, leaving the army under the command of Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis who roundly defeated Major General Horatio Gates, patriot victor of Saratoga, at Camden. However, while British regulars performed well in the field, their loyalist allies fared less well and suffered serious reverses at King’s Mountain and Cowpens. Cornwallis did defeat Nathaniel Greene at Guildford Courthouse in March 1781, but by now his army was exhausted and he retreated to Yorktown, to the south of Chesapeake Bay, where he hoped to be either re-supplied or evacuated.

The turning point in the war came shortly afterwards when the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse attempted to seize control of the sea off Chesapeake Bay. Washington immediately moved south with the bulk of his army, together with French troops who had recently landed in Rhode Island, and laid siege to Cornwallis. The British did organise a naval relief expedition but by the time it arrived Cornwallis had surrendered. When the British Prime Minister Lord North heard the news he is said to have staggered as if shot and wailed: ‘Oh God! It is all over’.

The war was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, by which time it had become clear that the British, with their global commitments, no longer had any realistic chance of winning.

American War of Independence, 1776-1783