An Introduction to the American Revolutionary War

'Surrender of Cornwallis', Yorktown, Virginia, 1781.

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The American Revolution was fought between 1775 and 1783 and was the result of increasing colonial unhappiness with British rule. During the American Revolution, American forces were constantly hampered by a lack of resources but managed to win critical victories which led to an alliance with France. With other European countries joining the fight, the conflict became increasingly global in nature forcing the British to divert resources away from North America. Following the American victory at Yorktown, fighting effectively ended and the war was concluded with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The treaty saw Britain recognize American independence as well as determined boundaries and other rights.

American Revolution: Causes

Boston Tea Party, English tea chests thrown overboard in Boston Harbor by colonists, December 16, 1773

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With the conclusion of the French & Indian War in 1763, the British government adopted the position that its American colonies should shoulder a percentage of the cost associated with their defense. To this end, Parliament began passing a series of taxes, such as the Stamp Act, designed to raise funds to offset this expense. These were met with ire by the colonists who argued that they were unfair as the colonies had no representation in Parliament. In December 1773, in response to a tax on tea, colonists in Boston conducted the "Boston Tea Party" in which they raided several merchant ships and threw the tea into the harbor. As punishment, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts which closed the harbor and effectively placed the city under occupation.  This action further angered the colonists and led to the creation of the First Continental Congress.

American Revolution: Opening Campaigns

Engraving of the Battle of Lexington After Alonzo Chappel

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As British troops moved into Boston, Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage was appointed governor of Massachusetts. On April 19, Gage sent troops to seize arms from the colonial militias. Alerted by riders like Paul Revere, the militias were able to muster in time to meet the British. Confronting them in Lexington, the war began when an unknown gunman opened fire. In the resulting Battles of Lexington & Concord, the colonials were able to drive the British back to Boston. That June, the British won the costly Battle of Bunker Hill but remained trapped in Boston. The following month, Gen. George Washington arrived to lead the colonial army. Utilizing cannon brought from Fort Ticonderoga by Colonel Henry Knox he was able to force the British from the city in March 1776.

American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga

Washington At Valley Forge

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Moving south, Washington prepared to defend against a British attack on New York. Landing in September 1776, British troops led by Gen. William Howe won the Battle of Long Island and, after a string of victories, drove Washington from the city. With his army collapsing, Washington retreated across New Jersey before finally winning victories at Trenton and Princeton. Having taken New York, Howe made plans to capture the colonial capital of Philadelphia the following year. Arriving in Pennsylvania in September 1777, he won a victory at Brandywine before occupying the city and beating Washington at Germantown. To the north, an American army led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates defeated and captured a British army led by Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga.  This victory led to an American alliance with France and a widening of the war.

American Revolution: The War Moves South

Molly Pitcher helping to clean and load a field gun at the battle of Monmouth.

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With the loss of Philadelphia, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge where his army endured extreme hardship and underwent extensive training under the guidance of Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Emerging, they won a strategic victory at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. Later that year, the war shifted to the South, where the British won key victories by capturing Savannah (1778) and Charleston (1780). After another British victory at Camden in August 1780, Washington dispatched Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene to take command of American forces in the region. Engaging Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis' army in a series of costly battles, such as Guilford Court House, Greene succeeded in wearing down British strength in the Carolinas.

American Revolution: Yorktown & Victory

The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781


In August 1781, Washington learned that Cornwallis was encamped at Yorktown, VA where he was waiting for ships to transport his army to New York. Consulting with his French allies, Washington quietly began shifting his army south from New York with the goal of defeating Cornwallis. Trapped in Yorktown after the French naval victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake, Cornwallis fortified his position. Arriving on September 28, Washington's army along with French troops under Comte de Rochambeau laid siege and won the resulting Battle of Yorktown. Surrendering on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis' defeat was the last major engagement of the war. The loss at Yorktown caused the British to begin the peace process which culminated in the 1783 Treaty of Paris which recognized American independence.

Battles of the American Revolution

Battle of Saratoga, the British General John Burgoyne surrendering to the American General.

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The battles of the American Revolution were fought as far north as Quebec and as far south as Savannah. As the war became global with the entry of France in 1778, other battles were fought overseas as the powers of Europe clashed. Beginning in 1775, these battles brought to prominence previously quiet villages such as Lexington, Germantown, Saratoga, and Yorktown, forever linking their names with the cause of American independence. Fighting during the early years of the American Revolution was generally in the North, while the war shifted south after 1779. During the war, around 25,000 Americans died (approx. 8,000 in battle), while another 25,000 were wounded. British and German losses numbered around 20,000 and 7,500 respectively.

People of the American Revolution

American Revolutionary general and traitor Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) conspiring with Loyalist British Major John Andre to commit treason.

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The American Revolution began in 1775 and led to the rapid formation of American armies to oppose the British. While British forces were largely led by professional officers and filled with career soldiers, the American leadership and ranks were filled with individuals drawn from all walks of life. Some American leaders possessed extensive militia service, while others came directly from civilian life. The American leadership was also aided by foreign officers from Europe, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, though these were of varying quality. During the early years of the war, American forces were hampered by poor generals and those who had achieved their rank through political connections. As the war wore on, many of these were replaced as skilled officers emerged. Other notable people of the Revolution include writers like Judith Sargent Murray, who wrote essays about the conflict.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "An Introduction to the American Revolutionary War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). An Introduction to the American Revolutionary War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "An Introduction to the American Revolutionary War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).