American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga

The War Spreads

Winter at Valley Forge
General George Washington at Valley Forge. Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

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The War Shifts to New York

Having captured Boston in March 1776, General George Washington began shifting his army south to block an anticipated British move against New York City. Arriving, he divided his army between Long Island and Manhattan and awaited British General William Howe's next move. In early June, the first British transports began appearing in lower New York Harbor and Howe established camps on Staten Island. Over the next several weeks Howe's army grew to over 32,000 men. His brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe commanded the Royal Navy's forces in the area and stood by to provide naval support.

The Second Continental Congress & Independence

While the British amassed strength near New York, the Second Continental Congress continued to meet in Philadelphia. Convening in May 1775, the group contained representatives from all thirteen American colonies. In final effort to reach an understanding with King George III, the Congress drafted the Olive Branch Petition on July 5, 1775, which asked the British government to address their grievances in order to avoid further bloodshed. Arriving in England, the petition was discarded by the king who was angered by the language used in confiscated letters written by American radicals such as John Adams.

The failure of the Olive Branch Petition gave strength to those elements in Congress that wished to press for full independence. As the war continued, Congress began to assume the role of a national government and worked to make treaties, supply the army, and build a navy. Since it lacked the ability to tax, Congress was forced to rely on the governments of the individual colonies to provide the needed money and goods. In early 1776, the pro-independence faction began to assert more influence and pressured colonial governments to authorize reluctant delegations to vote for independence. After extended debate, Congress passed a resolution for independence on July 2, 1776. This was followed by the approval of the Declaration of Independence two days later.

The Fall of New York

In New York, Washington, who lacked naval forces, remained concerned that Howe could outflank him by sea anywhere in the New York area. Despite this, he felt compelled to defend the city due to its political importance. On August 22, Howe moved around 15,000 men across to Gravesend Bay on Long Island. Coming ashore, they probed the American defenses along the Heights of Guan. Finding an opening at Jamaica Pass, the British moved through the heights on the night of August 26/27 and struck American forces the next day. Caught by surprise, American troops under Major General Israel Putnam were defeated in the resulting Battle of Long Island. Falling back to a fortified position on Brooklyn Heights, they were reinforced and joined by Washington.

Though aware that Howe could cut him off from Manhattan, Washington was initially reluctant to abandon Long Island. Approaching Brooklyn Heights, Howe turned cautious and ordered his men to begin siege operations. Realizing the dangerous nature of his situation, Washington left the position on the night of August 29/30 and succeeded in moving his men back to Manhattan. On September 15, Howe landed on Lower Manhattan with 12,000 men and at Kip's Bay with 4,000. This forced Washington to abandon the city and assume a position to the north at Harlem Heights. The next day his men won their first victory of the campaign in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

With Washington in a strong fortified postion, Howe elected to move by water with part of his command to Throg's Neck and then on to Pell's Point. With Howe operating to the east, Washington was forced to abandon his position on northern Manhattan for fear of being cut off. Leaving strong garrisons at Fort Washington on Manhattan and Fort Lee in New Jersey, Washington withdrew to a strong defensive position at White Plains. On October 28, Howe assaulted part of Washington's line at the Battle of White Plains. Driving the Americans off of a key hill, Howe was able to compel Washington to retreat again.

Rather than pursue the fleeing Americans, Howe turned south to consolidate his hold on the New York City area. Assaulting Fort Washington, he captured the fortification and its 2,800-man garrison on November 16. While Washington was criticized for attempting to hold the post, he did so on Congress' orders. Major General Nathanael Greene, commanding at Fort Lee, was able to escape with his men before being attacked by Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

The Battles of Trenton & Princeton

Having taken Fort Lee, Cornwallis was ordered to pursue Washington's army across New Jersey. As they retreated, Washington faced a crisis as his battered army began to disintegrate through desertions and expiring enlistments. Crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December, he made camp and attempted to reinvigorate his shrinking army. Reduced to around 2,400 men, the Continental Army was poorly supplied and ill-equipped for winter with many of the men still in summer uniforms or lacking shoes. As in the past, Howe displayed a lack of killer instinct and ordered his men into winter quarters on December 14, with many strung out in a series of outposts from New York to Trenton.

Believing an audacious act was needed to restore the public's confidence, Washington planned a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton for December 26. Crossing the ice-filled Delaware on Christmas night, his men struck the following morning and succeeded in defeating and capturing the garrison. Evading Cornwallis who had been sent to catch him, Washington's army won a second victory at Princeton on January 3, but lost Brigadier General Hugh Mercer who was mortally wounded. Having achieved two unlikely victories, Washington moved his army to Morristown, NJ and entered winter quarters.

Previous: Opening Campaigns | American Revolution 101 | Next: The War Moves South

Previous: Opening Campaigns | American Revolution 101 | Next: The War Moves South

Burgoyne's Plan

In the spring of 1777, Major General John Burgoyne proposed a plan for defeating the Americans. Believing that New England was the seat of the rebellion, he proposed cutting the region off from the other colonies by moving down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor while a second force, led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, advanced east from Lake Ontario and down the Mohawk River. Meeting at Albany, Burgoyne and St. Leger would press down the Hudson, while Howe's army advanced north. Though approved by Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, Howe's role in the plan was never clearly defined and issues of his seniority precluded Burgoyne from issuing him orders.

The Philadelphia Campaign

Operating on his own, Howe prepared his own campaign for capturing the American capital at Philadelphia. Leaving a small force under Major General Henry Clinton at New York, he embarked 13,000 men on transports and sailed south. Entering the Chesapeake, the fleet traveled north and the army landed at Head of Elk, MD on August 25, 1777. In position with 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia to defend the capital, Washington dispatched units to track and harass Howe's army.

Aware that he would have to face Howe, Washington prepared to make a stand along the banks of the Brandywine River. Forming his men in a strong position near Chadd's Ford, Washington awaited the British. In surveying the American position on September 11, Howe elected to use the same strategy he employed at Long Island. Using Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen's Hessians, Howe fixed the American center in place along the creek with a diversionary attack, while marching the bulk of this army around Washington's right flank. Attacking, Howe was able to drive the Americans from the field and captured the bulk of their artillery. Ten days later, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne's men were beaten at the Paoli Massacre.

With Washington defeated, Congress fled Philadelphia and reconvened at York, PA. Outmaneuvering Washington, Howe entered the city on September 26. Eager to redeem the defeat at Brandywine and re-take the city, Washington began planning a counterattack against British forces located at Germantown. Devising a complicated assault plan, Washington's columns became delayed and confused in the thick morning fog on October 4. In the resulting Battle of Germantown, American forces achieved early success and were on the verge of a great victory before confusion in the ranks and strong British counterattacks turned the tide.

Among those who had performed badly at Germantown was Major General Adam Stephen who had been drunk during the fighting. Not hesitating, Washington sacked him in favor of the promising young Frenchmen, the Marquis de Lafayette, who had recently joined the army. With the campaign season winding down, Washington moved the army to Valley Forge for winter quarters. Enduring a hard winter, the American army underwent extensive training under the watchful eye of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Another foreign volunteer, von Steuben had served as a staff officer in the Prussian army and imparted his knowledge to the Continental forces.

The Tide Turns at Saratoga

While Howe was planning his campaign against Philadelphia, Burgoyne moved forward with the other elements of his plan. Pressing down Lake Champlain, he easily captured Fort Ticonderoga on July 6, 1777. As a result, Congress replaced the American commander in the area, Major General Philip Schuyler, with Major General Horatio Gates. Pushing south, Burgoyne won minor victories at Hubbardton and Fort Ann and elected to move overland towards the American position at Fort Edward. Moving through the forest, Burgoyne's progress was slowed as the Americans felled tree across the roads and worked to obstruct the British advance.

To the west, St. Leger laid siege to Fort Stanwix on August 3, and defeated an American relief column at the Battle of Oriskany three days later. Still commanding the American army, Schuyler dispatched Major General Benedict Arnold to break the siege. As Arnold approached, St. Leger's Native American allies fled after hearing exaggerated accounts regarding the size of Arnold's force. Left on his own, St. Leger had no choice but to retreat west. As Burgoyne neared Fort Edward, the American army fell back to Stillwater.

Though he had won several minor victories, the campaign had cost Burgoyne heavily as his supply lines lengthened and men were detached for garrison duty. In early August, Burgoyne detached part of his Hessian contingent to search for supplies in nearby Vermont. This force was engaged and decisively defeated at the Battle of Bennington on August 16. Three days later Burgoyne made camp near Saratoga to rest his men and await news from St. Leger and Howe.

Previous: Opening Campaigns | American Revolution 101 | Next: The War Moves South

Previous: Opening Campaigns | American Revolution 101 | Next: The War Moves South

Two miles to the south, Schuyler's men began fortifying a series of heights on the west bank of the Hudson. As this work progressed, Gates arrived and took command on August 19. Five days later, Arnold returned from Fort Stanwix and the two began a series of clashes over strategy. While Gates was content to remain on the defensive, Arnold advocated striking at the British. Despite this, Gates gave Arnold command of the left wing of the army, while Major General Benjamin Lincoln led the right. On September 19, Burgoyne moved to attack the American position. Aware that the British were on the move, Arnold secured permission for a reconnaissance in force to determine Burgoyne's intentions. In the resulting Battle of Freeman's Farm, Arnold decisively defeated the British attack columns, but was relieved after a fight with Gates.

Having suffered over 600 casualties at Freeman's Farm, Burgoyne's position continued to worsen. Sending to Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton at New York for aid, he soon learned that none was forthcoming. Short on men and supplies, Burgoyne resolved to renew the battle on October 4. Moving out three days later, the British attacked American positions at the Battle of Bemis Heights. Encountering heavy resistance, the advance soon bogged down. Pacing at headquarters, Arnold finally departed against Gates' wishes and rode to the sound of the guns. Aiding on several parts of the battlefield, he led a successful counterattack on the British fortifications before being wounded in the leg.

Now outnumbered 3-to-1, Burgoyne attempted to retreat north towards Fort Ticonderoga on the night of October 8. Blocked by Gates and with his supplies dwindling, Burgoyne elected to open negotiations with the Americans. Though he initially demanded an unconditional surrender, Gates agreed to a treaty of convention whereby Burgoyne's men would be taken to Boston as prisoners and permitted to return to England on the condition that they not fight in North America again. On October 17, Burgoyne surrendered his remaining 5,791 men. Congress, unhappy with the terms offered by Gates, overruled the agreement and Burgoyne's men were placed in prisoner camps around the colonies for the remainder of the war. The victory at Saratoga proved key in securing a treaty of alliance with France.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).