Path to the Revolution: Continental Congress
The Continental Congress was one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
The Continental Congress was a series of legislative bodies which met in the British American colonies and the newly declared United States just before, during, and after the American Revolution. The term “Continental Congress” most specifically refers to the First and Second Congresses of 1774–1781 and may also refer to the Congress of the Confederation of 1781–1789, which operated as the first national government of the United States until being replaced by the current congress. Thus, the term covers the three congressional bodies of the Thirteen Colonies and the new United States that met between 1774 and 1789.
The First Continental Congress was called in 1774 in response to growing tensions between the colonies culminating in the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament. It met for about six weeks and sought to repair the fraying relationship between Britain and colonies while asserting the rights of colonists. The Second Continental Congress convened in 1775 in response to the breakout of hostilities in Massachusetts. Soon after meeting, this second Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George III while also selecting George Washington as the head of the new Continental Army. After peace was not forthcoming, the same congress drafted and adopted the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, proclaiming that the former colonies were now independent sovereign states.
The Second Continental Congress served as the provisional government of the U.S. for most of the War of Independence. In March 1781, the nation’s first Frame of Government, the Articles of Confederation, came into force, at which time the body became the Congress of the Confederation. This unicameral governing body would convene in eight sessions prior to being disbanded in 1789, when the 1st United States Congress under the new Constitution of the United States took over the role as the nation’s legislative branch of government.
Both the First and Second Continental Congresses convened in Philadelphia, though with the capture of the city during the Revolutionary War, the Second Congress was forced to meet in other locations for a time. The Congress of Confederation was also established in Philadelphia and later moved to New York City when it became the U.S. capital in 1785.
Much of what is known today about the daily activities of these congresses comes from the journals kept by the secretary for all three congresses, Charles Thomson. Printed contemporaneously, the Papers of the Continental Congress contain the official congressional papers, letters, treaties, reports and records. The delegates to the Continental and Confederation congresses had extensive experience in deliberative bodies, with “a cumulative total of nearly 500 years of experience in their Colonial assemblies, and fully a dozen of them had served as speakers of the houses of their legislatures.”
First Continental Congress
The First Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from 12 of the 13 British colonies that became the United States. It met from September 5 to October 26, 1774, at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after the British Navy instituted a blockade of Boston Harbor and Parliament passed the punitive Intolerable Acts in response to the December 1773 Boston Tea Party. During the opening weeks of the Congress, the delegates conducted a spirited discussion about how the colonies could collectively respond to the British government’s coercive actions, and they worked to make a common cause.
A plan was proposed to create a Union of Great Britain and the Colonies, but the delegates rejected it. They ultimately agreed to impose an economic boycott on British trade, and they drew up a Petition to the King pleading for redress of their grievances and repeal of the Intolerable Acts. That appeal had no effect, so the colonies convened the Second Continental Congress the following May, shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord, to organize the defense of the colonies at the outset of the Revolutionary War. The delegates also urged each colony to set up and train its own militia.
Battles of Lexington and Concord
The battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. The battles were fought on April 19, 1775 in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge. They marked the outbreak of armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its thirteen colonies in America.
In late 1774, Colonial leaders adopted the Suffolk Resolves in resistance to the alterations made to the Massachusetts colonial government by the British parliament following the Boston Tea Party. The colonial assembly responded by forming a Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The Colonial government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.
About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot leaders had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations.
On the night before the battle, warning of the British expedition had been rapidly sent from Boston to militias in the area by several riders, including Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott, with information about British plans. The initial mode of the Army’s arrival by water was signaled from the Old North Church in Boston to Charlestown using lanterns to communicate “one if by land, two if by sea”.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. Eight militiamen were killed, including Ensign Robert Munroe, their third in command. The British suffered only one casualty.
The militia was outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they broke apart into companies to search for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 400 militiamen engaged 100 regulars from three companies of the King’s troops at about 11:00 am, resulting in casualties on both sides. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of British forces in Concord.
The British forces began their return march to Boston after completing their search for military supplies, and more militiamen continued to arrive from the neighboring towns. Gunfire erupted again between the two sides and continued throughout the day as the regulars marched back towards Boston.
Upon returning to Lexington, Lt. Col. Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a future Duke of Northumberland styled at this time by the courtesy title Earl Percy. The combined force of about 1,700 men marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias then blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the siege of Boston.
Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge in his “Concord Hymn” as the “shot heard round the world”.
Second Continental Congress
The Second Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies in America that united in the American Revolutionary War. It convened on May 10, 1775, with representatives from 12 of the colonies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, succeeding the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774.
The Second Congress functioned as a de facto national government at the outset of the Revolutionary War by raising armies, directing strategy, appointing diplomats, and writing petitions such as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition. All thirteen colonies were represented by the time the Congress adopted the Lee Resolution which declared independence from Britain on July 2, 1776, and the congress agreed to the Declaration of Independence two days later.
Afterward, Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States of America through March 1, 1781. During this period, its achievements included: Successfully managing the war effort; drafting the Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitution; securing diplomatic recognition and support from foreign nations; and resolving state land claims west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Many of the delegates who attended the Second Congress had also attended the First. They again elected Peyton Randolph to serve as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson to serve as secretary. Notable new arrivals included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and John Hancock of Massachusetts.
Within two weeks, Randolph was summoned back to Virginia to preside over the House of Burgesses; Hancock succeeded him as president, and Thomas Jefferson replaced him in the Virginia delegation. The number of participating colonies also grew, as Georgia endorsed the Congress in July 1775 and adopted the continental ban on trade with Britain.
Battle of Bunker Hill
The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the first stage of the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which was peripherally involved in the battle. It was the original objective of both the colonial and British troops, though the majority of combat took place on the adjacent hill which later became known as Breed’s Hill.
On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British were planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding the city, which would give them control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. During the night, the colonists constructed a strong redoubt on Breed’s Hill, as well as smaller fortified lines across the Charlestown Peninsula.
By daybreak of June 17, the British became aware of the presence of colonial forces on the Peninsula and mounted an attack against them that day. Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties; the third and final attack carried the redoubt after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists including over 100 African Americans,retreated over Bunker Hill, leaving the British in control of the Peninsula.
The battle was a tactical, though somewhat Pyrrhic, victory for the British, as it proved to be a sobering experience for them; the British incurred many more casualties than the Americans had sustained, including many officers. The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced militia were able to stand up to regular army troops in battle. Subsequently, the battle discouraged the British from any further frontal attacks against well defended front lines. American casualties were comparatively much fewer, although their losses included General Joseph Warren and Major Andrew McClary, the final casualty of the battle.
The battle led the British to adopt a more cautious planning and maneuver execution in future engagements, which was evident in the subsequent New York and New Jersey campaign, and arguably helped rather than hindered the American forces. Their new approach to battle was actually giving the Americans greater opportunity to retreat if defeat was imminent. The costly engagement also convinced the British of the need to hire substantial numbers of Hessian auxiliaries to bolster their strength in the face of the new and formidable Continental Army.
The American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783), also known as the Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence, was initiated by delegates from thirteen American colonies of British America in Congress against Great Britain over their objection to Parliament’s taxation policies and lack of colonial representation. From their founding in the 1600s, the colonies were largely left to govern themselves.
The cost of victory in the 1754 to 1763 French and Indian War and the 1756 to 1763 Seven Years’ War left the British government deeply in debt; the colonies, where the war was fought, equipped and populated the British forces there at the cost of millions of their own funds. The Stamp Act and Townshend Acts provoked colonial opposition and unrest, leading to the 1770 Boston Massacre and 1773 Boston Tea Party. When Parliament imposed the Intolerable Acts in spring 1774 upon Massachusetts, twelve colonies sent delegates to the First Continental Congress (September 5 – October 26, 1774) to draft a Petition to the King and organize a boycott of British goods.
Fighting broke out on 19 April 1775: the British army stationed at Boston was harassed by the Massachusetts militia at Lexington and Concord after destroying colonial Assembly powder stores. In June, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington to create a Continental Army and oversee the capture of Boston (April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776). The Patriots sent the Olive Branch Petition (signed July 8, 1775) to the King and Parliament, both of whom rejected it. In response, they invaded British Quebec but were repulsed. In July 1776, Congress unanimously passed the Declaration of Independence.
Hopes of a quick settlement were supported by American sympathizers within Parliament who opposed Lord North’s “coercion policy” in the colonies. However, after the British were driven out of Boston the new British commander-in-chief, General Sir William Howe, launched a counter-offensive and captured New York City.
After crossing the Delaware, Washington engaged and routed Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton and the British at the Battle of Princeton. After British General Burgoyne surrendered at the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777, Howe’s 1777–1778 Philadelphia campaign captured that city. Washington retreated to Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778 where Prussian allied General von Steuben drilled the largely untrained Continental Army into an organized fighting unit.
French Foreign Minister Vergennes saw the war as a way to create an America economically and militarily dependent on France, not Britain. Although talks on a formal alliance began in late 1776, they proceeded slowly until the Patriot victory at Saratoga in October 1777. Fears Congress might come to an early settlement with Britain resulted in France and the United States signing two treaties in February 1778. The first was a commercial treaty, the second a Treaty of Alliance; in return for a French guarantee of American independence, Congress agreed to join the war against Britain and defend the French West Indies. Although Spain refused to join the Franco-American alliance, in the 1779 Treaty of Aranjuez they agreed to support France in its global war with Britain, hoping to regain losses incurred in 1713.
In other fronts in North America, Governor of Spanish Louisiana Bernardo Gálvez routed British forces from Louisiana. The Spanish, along with American privateers supplied the 1779 American conquest of Western Quebec (later the US Northwest Territory). Gálvez then expelled British forces from Mobile during the Battle of Fort Charlotte and the siege of Pensacola, cutting off British military aid to their American Indian allies in the interior southeast.
Howe’s replacement, General Sir Henry Clinton, then mounted a 1778 “Southern strategy” from Charleston. After capturing Savannah, defeats at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of Cowpens forced Cornwallis to retreat to Yorktown, where his army was besieged by an allied French and American force. An attempt to resupply the garrison was repulsed by the French navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781.
Although their war with France and Spain continued for another two years, Yorktown ended the British will to continue the war in North America. The North Ministry was replaced by Lord Rockingham, who accepted office on the basis George III agreed to American independence. Preliminary articles were signed in November 1782, and in April 1783 Congress accepted British terms; these included independence, evacuation of British troops, cession of territory up to the Mississippi River and navigation to the sea, as well as fishing rights in Newfoundland. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed between Great Britain and the United States, then ratified the following spring.
Boston Campaign (1775-76)
The Boston campaign was the opening campaign of the American Revolutionary War, taking place primarily in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The campaign began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, in which the local colonial militias interdicted a British government attempt to seize military stores and leaders in Concord, Massachusetts. The entire British expedition suffered significant casualties during a running battle back to Charlestown against an ever-growing number of militia.
Subsequently, accumulated militia forces surrounded the city of Boston, beginning the siege of Boston. The main action during the siege, the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war, and resulted in a Pyrrhic British victory. There were also numerous skirmishes near Boston and the coastal areas of Boston, resulting in loss of life, military supplies, or both.
In July 1775, George Washington took command of the assembled militia and transformed them into a more coherent army. On March 4, 1776, the colonial army fortified Dorchester Heights with cannon capable of reaching Boston and British ships in the harbor. The siege (and the campaign) ended on March 17, 1776, with the permanent withdrawal of British forces from Boston. To this day, Boston celebrates March 17 as Evacuation Day.
Invasion of Quebec (1775-76)
The Invasion of Quebec (June 1775 – October 1776, French: Invasion du Québec) was the first major military initiative by the newly formed Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The objective of the campaign was to gain military control of the British Province of Quebec (part of modern-day Canada), and convince French-speaking Canadiens to join the revolution on the side of the Thirteen Colonies. One expedition left Fort Ticonderoga under Richard Montgomery, besieged and captured Fort St. Johns, and very nearly captured British General Guy Carleton when taking Montreal. The other expedition left Cambridge, Massachusetts, under Benedict Arnold, and traveled with great difficulty through the wilderness of Maine to Quebec City. The two forces joined there, but they were defeated at the Battle of Quebec in December 1775.
Montgomery’s expedition set out from Fort Ticonderoga in late August, and in mid-September began besieging Fort St. Johns, the main defensive point south of Montreal. After the fort was captured in November, Carleton abandoned Montreal, fleeing to Quebec City, and Montgomery took control of Montreal before heading for Quebec with an army much reduced in size by expiring enlistments. There he joined Arnold, who had left Cambridge in early September on an arduous trek through the wilderness that left his surviving troops starving and lacking in many supplies and equipment.
These forces joined before Quebec City in December, and they assaulted the city in a snowstorm on the last day of the year. The battle was a disastrous defeat for the Continental Army; Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded, while the city’s defenders suffered few casualties. Arnold then conducted an ineffectual siege on the city, during which successful propaganda campaigns boosted Loyalist sentiments, and General David Wooster’s blunt administration of Montreal served to annoy both supporters and detractors of the Americans.
The British sent several thousand troops, including General John Burgoyne and Hessian allies, to reinforce those in the province in May 1776. General Carleton then launched a counter-offensive, ultimately driving the smallpox-weakened and disorganized Continental forces back to Fort Ticonderoga. The Continental Army, under Arnold’s command, were able to hinder the British advance sufficiently that an attack could not be mounted on Fort Ticonderoga in 1776. The end of the campaign set the stage for Burgoyne’s campaign of 1777 to gain control of the Hudson River valley.
Southern Theater (1775-83)
The Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War was the central theater of military operations in the second half of the American Revolutionary War, 1778–1781. It encompassed engagements primarily in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. Tactics consisted of both strategic battles and guerrilla warfare.
During the first three years of the conflict, 1775–1778, the largest military encounters between Continental Army and the British Army had been in the New England and Middle colonies, around the cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. After the failure of the Saratoga campaign, the British Army largely abandoned operations in the north and pursued peace through subjugation in the Southern Colonies. Before 1778, these colonies were largely dominated by Patriot-controlled governments and militias, although there was also a Continental Army presence that played a role in the 1776 defense of Charleston, the suppression of loyalist militias, and attempts to drive the British from strongly loyalist East Florida.
The British began to implement their “Southern Strategy” in late 1778, in Georgia. It initially achieved success with the capture of Savannah, Georgia, which was followed in 1780 by operations in South Carolina that included the defeat of Continental forces at Charleston and Camden. At the same time France (in 1778) and Spain (in 1779) declared war on Great Britain in support of the United States. Spain captured all of British West Florida, culminating in the siege of Pensacola in 1781. France initially offered only naval support for the first few years after its declaration of war but in 1781 sent massive numbers of soldiers to join General George Washington’s army and marched into Virginia from New York. General Nathanael Greene, who took over as Continental Army commander after Camden, engaged in a strategy of avoidance and attrition against the British. The two forces fought a string of battles, most of which were tactical, though pyrrhic victories for the British Army. The high cost in casualties left it strategically weakened, while the Continental Army remained largely intact to continue fighting. This was best exemplified by the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Several American victories, such as the Battle of Ramseur’s Mill, the Battle of Cowpens, and the Battle of Kings Mountain, also served to weaken the overall British military strength. The culminating engagement, the siege of Yorktown, ended with the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis on October 19, 1781. It was essentially the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. Shortly afterward, negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began, resulting in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
New York and New Jersey Campaign (1776-77)
The New York and New Jersey campaign was a series of battles in 1776 and the winter months of 1777 for control of the Port of New York and the state of New Jersey during the American Revolutionary War between British forces under General Sir William Howe and the Continental Army under General George Washington. Howe was successful in driving Washington out of New York, but overextended his reach into New Jersey, and ended the active campaign season in January 1777 with only a few outposts near the city. The British held New York harbor for the rest of the war, using it as a base for expeditions against other targets.
Landing unopposed on Staten Island on July 3, 1776, Howe assembled an army composed of elements that had been withdrawn from Boston in March following their failure to hold that city, combined with additional British troops, as well as Hessian troops hired from several German principalities. Washington had New England soldiers as well as regiments from states as far south as Virginia. Landing on Long Island in August, Howe defeated Washington in the largest battle of the war in North America, but the Continental Army was able to make an orderly retreat to Manhattan under cover of darkness and fog. Washington suffered a series of further defeats in Manhattan, with the exception of the skirmish at Harlem Heights, and eventually withdrew to White Plains, New York. At that point Howe returned to Manhattan to capture forces Washington had left in the north of the island.
Washington and much of his army then crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey, and retreated all the way across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, shrinking due to ending enlistment periods, desertions, and poor morale. Howe ordered his troops into winter quarters in December, establishing a chain of outposts from New York to Burlington, New Jersey. Washington, in a tremendous boost to American morale, launched a successful strike against the Trenton garrison after crossing the icy Delaware River, prompting Howe to withdraw his chain of outposts back to New Brunswick and the coast near New York, while Washington established his winter camp at Morristown. During the remaining winter months, both sides skirmished frequently as the British sought forage and provisions.
Britain maintained control of New York City and some of the surrounding territory until the war ended in 1783, using it as a base for operations elsewhere in North America. In 1777, General Howe launched a campaign to capture Philadelphia, leaving General Sir Henry Clinton in command of the New York area, while General John Burgoyne led an attempt to gain control of the Hudson River valley, moving south from Quebec and failed at Saratoga. Northern New Jersey was the scene of skirmishing between the opposing forces for the rest of the war.
Saratoga Campaign (1777)
The Saratoga campaign in 1777 was an attempt by the British high command for North America to gain military control of the strategically important Hudson River valley during the American Revolutionary War. It ended in the surrender of the British army, which historian Edmund Morgan argues, “was a great turning point of the war, because it won for Americans the foreign assistance which was the last element needed for victory.”
The primary thrust of the campaign was planned and initiated by General John Burgoyne. Commanding a main force of some 8,000 men, he moved south in June from Quebec, boated up Lake Champlain to middle New York, then marched over the divide and down the Hudson Valley to Saratoga. He initially skirmished there with the Patriot defenders with mixed results. Then, after losses in the Battles of Saratoga in September and October, his deteriorating position and the ever-increasing size of the American army forced him to surrender his forces to the American general Horatio Gates on October 17.
In this critical British loss on the field of battle, the coordinated movements that had been drawn up in far away London did not materialize. Colonel Barry St. Leger had been assigned to move east through the Mohawk River valley on Albany, New York, but was forced to retreat during the Siege of Fort Stanwix after losing his Indian allies. The major expedition planned from the south was not launched due to miscommunication with London when General William Howe sent his army to take Philadelphia rather than sending it up the Hudson River to link up with Burgoyne. A last-minute effort to reinforce Burgoyne from New York City was made in early October, but it was too little, too late.
The American victory was an enormous morale boost to the fledgling nation. More important, it convinced France to enter the war in alliance with the United States, openly providing money, soldiers, and munitions, as well as fighting a naval war worldwide against Britain.
Philadelphia Campaign (1777-78)
The Philadelphia campaign (1777–1778) was a British effort in the American Revolutionary War to gain control of Philadelphia, which was then the seat of the Second Continental Congress. British General William Howe, after failing to draw the Continental Army under General George Washington into a battle in northern New Jersey, embarked his army on transports, and landed them at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay. From there, he advanced northward toward Philadelphia. Washington prepared defenses against Howe’s movements at Brandywine Creek, but was flanked and beaten back in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. After further skirmishes and maneuvers, Howe entered and occupied Philadelphia. Washington then unsuccessfully attacked one of Howe’s garrisons at Germantown before retreating to Valley Forge for the winter.
Howe’s campaign was controversial because, although he captured the American capital of Philadelphia, he proceeded slowly and did not aid the concurrent campaign of John Burgoyne further north, which ended in disaster at Saratoga for the British, and brought France into the war. Howe resigned during the occupation of Philadelphia and was replaced by his second-in-command, General Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton evacuated the troops from Philadelphia back to New York City in 1778 in order to stiffen that city’s defenses against a possible Franco-American attack. Washington harried the British army all the way across New Jersey, and forced a battle at Monmouth Court House that was one of the largest battles of the war.
At the end of the campaign, the two armies were roughly in the same positions they were at its beginning.
Western Theater (1777-82)
The Western theater of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was the area of conflict west of the Appalachian Mountains, the region which became the Northwest Territory of the United States as well as the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Spanish Louisiana. The western war was fought between American Indians with their British allies in Detroit, and American settlers south and east of the Ohio River, and also the Spanish as allies of the latter.
Northern Theater After Saratoga (1778-81)
The Northern theater of the American Revolutionary War after Saratoga consisted of a series of battles between American revolutionaries and British forces, from 1778 to 1782 during the American Revolutionary War. It is characterized by two primary areas of activity. The first set of activities was based around the British base of operations in New York City, where each side made probes and counterprobes against the other’s positions that sometimes resulted in notable actions. The second was essentially a frontier war in Upstate New York and rural northern Pennsylvania that was largely fought by state militia companies and some Indian allies on the American side, and Loyalist companies supported by Indians, British Indian agents, and occasionally British regulars. The notable exception to significant Continental Army participation on the frontier was the 1779 Sullivan Expedition, in which General John Sullivan led an army expedition that drove the Iroquois out of New York. The warfare amongst the splinters of the Iroquois Six Nations were particularly brutal, turning much of the Indian population into refugees.
The only other notable actions occurred in New England. A combined American-French attempt was made to drive the British out of Newport, Rhode Island. The Battle of Rhode Island ended badly when the French fleet abandoned the effort; the failure did some damage to American–French relations. In 1779 the British established a base on the Penobscot River in the District of Maine with the intent of establishing a Loyalist presence there. The state of Massachusetts responded with the amphibious Penobscot Expedition, which ended in complete disaster.
The British continued a process of raiding the New England coastal communities. One such raid led to a skirmish at Freetown, Massachusetts, while others descended on Massachusetts and Connecticut coastal communities. In the 1781 Battle of Groton Heights, the British were led by Connecticut native Benedict Arnold, who did substantial damage to the town.
Yorktown Campaign (1781)
The Yorktown or Virginia campaign was a series of military maneuvers and battles during the American Revolutionary War that culminated in the decisive siege of Yorktown in October 1781. The result of the campaign was the surrender of the British Army force of General Charles Earl Cornwallis, an event that led directly to the beginning of serious peace negotiations and the eventual end of the war. The campaign was marked by disagreements, indecision, and miscommunication on the part of British leaders, and by a remarkable set of cooperative decisions, at times in violation of orders, by the French and Americans.
The campaign involved land and naval forces of Great Britain and France, and land forces of the United States. British forces were sent to Virginia between January and April 1781 and joined with Cornwallis’s army in May, which came north from an extended campaign through the southern states. These forces were first opposed weakly by Virginia militia, but General George Washington sent first Marquis de Lafayette and then “Mad” Anthony Wayne with Continental Army troops to oppose the raiding and economic havoc the British were wreaking. The combined American forces, however, were insufficient in number to oppose the combined British forces, and it was only after a series of controversially confusing orders by General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief, that Cornwallis moved to Yorktown in July and built a defensive position that was strong against the land forces he then faced, but was vulnerable to naval blockade and siege.
British naval forces in North America and the West Indies were weaker than the combined fleets of France and Spain, and, after some critical decisions and tactical missteps by British naval commanders, the French fleet of Paul de Grasse gained control over Chesapeake Bay, blockading Cornwallis from naval support and delivering additional land forces to blockade him on land. The Royal Navy attempted to dispute this control, but Admiral Thomas Graves was defeated in the key Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5. American and French armies that had massed outside New York City began moving south in late August, and arrived near Yorktown in mid-September. Deceptions about their movement successfully delayed attempts by Clinton to send more troops to Cornwallis.
The siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781. In a step that probably shortened the siege, Cornwallis decided to abandon parts of his outer defenses, and the besiegers successfully stormed two of his redoubts. When it became clear that his position was untenable, Cornwallis opened negotiations on October 17 and surrendered two days later. When the news reached London, the government of Lord North fell, and the following Rockingham ministry entered into peace negotiations. These culminated in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, in which King George III recognized the independent United States of America. Clinton and Cornwallis engaged in a public war of words defending their roles in the campaign, and British naval command also discussed the navy’s shortcomings that led to the defeat.
The American Revolutionary War saw a series battles involving naval forces of the British Royal Navy and the Continental Navy from 1775, and of the French Navy from 1778 onwards. While the British enjoyed more numerical victories these battles culminated in the surrender of the British Army force of Lieutenant-General Earl Charles Cornwallis, an event that led directly to the beginning of serious peace negotiations and the eventual end of the war. From the start of the hostilities, the British North American station under Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves blockaded the major colonial ports and carried raids against patriot communities. Colonial forces could do little to stop these developments due to British naval supremacy. In 1777, colonial privateers made raids into British waters capturing merchant ships, which they took into French and Spanish ports, although both were officially neutral. Seeking to challenge Britain, France signed two treaties with America in February 1778, but stopped short of declaring war on Britain. The risk of a French invasion forced the British to concentrate its forces in the English Channel, leaving its forces in North America vulnerable to attacks.
France officially entered the war on 17 June 1778, and the French ships sent to the Western Hemisphere spent most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed to the Thirteen Colonies from July until November. In the first Franco-American campaign, a French fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Comte Charles Henri Hector d’Estaing attempted landings in New York and Newport, but due to a combination of poor co-ordination and bad weather, d’Estaing and Vice-Admiral Lord Richard Howe naval forces did not engage during 1778. After the French fleet departed, the British turned their attention to the south. In 1779, the French fleet returned to assist American forces attempting to recapture Savannah from British forces., however failing leading the British victors to remain in control till late 1782.
In 1780, another fleet and 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Comte Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau, landed at Newport, and shortly afterwards was blockaded by the British. In early 1781, General George Washington and the comte de Rochambeau planned an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area coordinated with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Comte François Joseph Paul de Grasse from the West Indies. British Vice-Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, who had been tracking de Grasse around the West Indies, was alerted to the latter’s departure, but was uncertain of the French admiral’s destination. Believing that de Grasse would return a portion of his fleet to Europe, Rodney detached Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood and 15 ships of the line with orders to find de Grasse’s destination in North America. Rodney, who was ill, sailed for Europe with the rest of his fleet in order to recover, refit his fleet, and to avoid the Atlantic hurricane season.
British naval forces in North America and the West Indies were weaker than the combined fleets of France and Spain, and, after much indecision by British naval commanders, the French fleet gained control over Chesapeake Bay, landing forces near Yorktown. The Royal Navy attempted to dispute this control in the key Battle of the Chesapeake on 5 September but Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves was defeated. Protected from the sea by French ships, Franco-American forces surrounded, besieged and forced the surrender of British forces commanded by General Cornwallis, concluding major operations in North America. When the news reached London, the government of Lord Frederick North fell, and the following Rockingham ministry entered into peace negotiations. These culminated in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, in which King George III recognised the independence of the United States of America.
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