Europe and the American Revolutionary War

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.

The International Phase

Saratoga was only a small victory, but it had a major consequence: France seized upon the chance to damage her great imperial rival and moved from secret support for the rebels to overt help, and for the rest of the war they sent crucial supplies, troops and naval support.

More on France in the American Revolutionary War

Now Britain couldn’t focus entirely on the war as France threatened them from around the world; indeed, France became the priority target and Britain seriously considered pulling out of the new US entirely to focus on its European rival.

This was now a world war, and while Britain saw the French islands of the West Indies as a viable replacement for the thirteen colonies, they had to balance their limited army and navy over many areas. Caribbean islands soon changed hands between the Europeans.

The British then pulled out of advantageous positions on the Hudson river to reinforce Pennsylvania. Washington had saved his army and forced it through training while camped for the harsh winter. With the aims of the British in America scaled right back Clinton, the new British commander, withdrew from Philadelphia and based himself at New York. Britain offered the US a joint sovereignty under a common king, but were rebuffed. The King then made it clear he wanted to try and retain the thirteen colonies, and feared that US independence would lead to the loss of the West Indies (something Spain also feared), to which troops were sent from the US theatre.

The British moved the emphasis to the south, believing it to be full of loyalists thanks to information from refugees and trying for piecemeal conquest. But the loyalists had risen before the British arrived, and there was now little explicit support; brutality followed from both sides in a civil war.

British victories at Charleston under Clinton, and Cornwallis at Camden were followed by loyalist defeats. Cornwallis continued to win victories, but tenacious rebel commanders prevented the British from achieving success. Orders from the north now forced Cornwallis to base himself at Yorktown, ready for resupply by sea.

Victory and Peace

A combined Franco-American army under Washington and Rochambeau decided to shift their troops down from the north with the hope of cutting Cornwallis off before he moved. French naval power then fought a draw at the Battle of Chesapeake – arguably the key battle of the war - pushing the British navy and vital supplies away from Cornwallis, ending any hope of immediate relief. Washington and Rochambeau besieged the city, forcing Cornwallis’ surrender.

This was the last major action of the war in America, as not only was Britain faced with a worldwide struggle against France, but Spain and Holland had joined. Their combined shipping could compete with the British navy, and a further ‘League of Armed Neutrality’ was harming British shipping. Land and sea battles were fought in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, India and West Africa, and an invasion of Britain was threatened leading to panic.

Furthermore, over 3000 British merchant ships had been captured (Marston, American War of Independence, 81).

The British still had troops in America and could send more, but their will to continue was sapped by a global conflict, the massive cost both of fighting the war – the National Debt had doubled - reduced trade income and a lack of explicitly loyal colonists, leading to the resignation of a Prime Minister and the opening of peace negotiations. These produced the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3rd 1783, with the British recognising the thirteen former colonies as independent, as well as settling other territorial issues. Britain had to sign treaties with France, Spain and the Dutch.

Text of the Treaty of Paris

Aftermath

For France, the war incurred massive dept which helped push it into revolution, bring down the king, and start a new war. In America, a new nation had been created, but it would take a civil war for ideas of representation and freedom to become a reality. Britain had relatively few losses aside from the US, and the focus of empire switched to India. Britain resumed trading with the Americas, and now saw their empire as more than simply a trading resource, but a political system with rights and responsibilities. Historians like Hibbert argue that the aristocratic class which had lead the war was now deeply undermined, and power began to transform to a middle class. (Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels, p.338).

More on the effects of the American Revolutionary War on Britain