American Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War (17751783), also known as the American War of Independence, was a war fought primarily between Great Britain and revolutionaries within the thirteen North American colonies. The war, which eventually widened far beyond British North America, resulted in the overthrow of British rule in the thirteen colonies and the establishment of the United States of America.

The terms Revolutionary War and American Revolution are often used interchangeably, though the Revolution included political and social developments before and after the war itself. This article refers solely to the military campaign; for the broader perspective, including the origins and aftermath of the war, see the American Revolution.

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Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by A.M. Willard in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of '76. Often imitated or parodied, it is one of the most famous images relating to the American Revolutionary War.



When the war began, the thirteen American colonies did not have a professional army (also known as a "regular" or "standing" army). Each colony instead provided for its own defenses through the use of local militia. Militiamen served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were generally reluctant to go very far from home, and would often come and go as they saw fit. Militia typically lacked the training and discipline of regular troops, but could be effective when led by talented officers.

Seeking to coordinate colonial military efforts, the Continental Congress established (on paper) a regular army—the Continental Army—in June of 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington reluctantly augmented the regular troops with short-term colonial militia throughout the war. Although as many as 250,000 men may have served the colonies as regulars or militiamen in the eight years of the war, there were never more than 90,000 total men under arms for the colonies in any given year. The greatest number of men that Washington personally commanded in the field at any one time was fewer than 17,000.

Great Britain

In 1775, Great Britain had a worldwide standing army of somewhere around 50,000 men. An additional 30,000 German mercenaries (popularly known as Hessians) were hired by the British over the course of the war. Fewer than 20,000 of these ever set foot in America. The war was far from Britain's greatest concern at the time. Loyalists—American colonists who sided with the British—fielded perhaps 50,000 men during the war years. However, according to reliable modern estimates, total British strength in the colonies did not exceed 20,000 men at any one time.

European nations

France, the Netherlands and Spain entered the war against Great Britain in an attempt to dilute Britain's super power status. France officially entered the war in 1778 and soon sent troops, ships and military equipment to fight alongside the American Colonial army against the British for the remainder of the war. Spain entered the war in 1779, but did not recongize the new American nation and sent no troops to America to fight alongside the Americans. The Netherlands entered the war late in 1780, but its navy and army was soon overwhelmed by the superior British Royal navy and army. French military involvement in the war proved decisive, though disastrous for the French economy. France's standing army at the time is estimated to have been some 100,000, many of whom made up the bulk of all combatants during the American Revolutionary War. In Europe, the war was often regarded as a scuffle between the poorer part of the British military and European Continental forces rather than a war for American Independence.

Blacks and Native Americans

African-Americans, including slaves and free blacks, served on both sides during the war. Black soldiers served in northern American militias from the outset, but this was forbidden in the South, where slaveowners feared arming slaves. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British. In response, and because of manpower shortages, Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1777. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought as Patriots; about 1,000 fought with the British as Loyalists. Thousands of black slaves used the war as a chance to escape to freedom.

Most American Indian communities east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, many dividing over the question of which side to support. Native American warriors fought on both sides of conflict, predominantly as allies of Great Britain. An estimated 13,000 warriors fought on the British side; the largest group, the Iroquois Confederacy, fielded about 1,500 warriors against the American rebels.1

War in the North

Massachusetts, 1774-76

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Boston - Concord Area, Route of British Troops, April 1775.

In 1774, the British parliament effectively abolished the provincial government of Massachusetts. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, already the commander-in-chief of British troops in North America, was also appointed governor of Massachusetts and was instructed by King George's government to enforce royal authority in the troublesome colony. However, a series of confrontations beginning in 1774 known as The Powder Alarms compelled the newly appointed royal officials in Massachusetts to resign or to seek refuge in Boston. Gage commanded four regiments of British regulars (about 4,000 men) from his headquarters in Boston, but the countryside was in the hands of the colonials.

On the night of 18 April 1775, General Gage sent 900 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord, Massachusetts. Several Patriot riders—including Paul Revere—alerted the countryside, and when the British troops entered Lexington on the morning of 19 April, they found 75 minutemen formed up on the village common. After the shot heard around the world, the British moved on to Concord, sparking the Battle of Lexington and Concord. By the time the "redcoats" (as the British soldiers were called) began the return march, several thousand militiamen had gathered along the road. A running fight ensued, and the British detachment suffered heavily. They met 1000 reinforcements back at Lexington, and the combined forces endured nearly constant fire during the return march to Boston. The shooting war had started.

The Death of  at the Battle of Bunker's Hill  (, 1786). Trumbull, an important painter of the American Revolution, witnessed the battle.
The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill (John Trumbull, 1786). Trumbull, an important painter of the American Revolution, witnessed the battle.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, thousands of American militiamen converged on Boston, bottling up the British in the city. Late in May, Gage received by sea about 4,500 reinforcements and a trio of generals who would play a vital role in the war: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. They began plans to break out of the city.

On June 17, 1775, British forces under General Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The battle was technically a British victory, but losses were so heavy that the attack was not followed up. Thus the siege was not broken, and General Gage was soon replaced by Howe as commander-in-chief for the British.

In early July of 1775, George Washington arrived outside Boston to take charge of the American forces. The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter, until in early March of 1776, heavy cannons that had been captured by the Americans at Fort Ticonderoga were placed upon Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British positions. With their situation in Boston now untenable, the British evacuated the city and sailed for temporary refuge in Halifax on March 17, 1776. The colonial militia dispersed, and in April Washington took most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City.

Canada, 1775-76

During the long standoff at Boston, the Continental Congress sought a way to seize the initiative elsewhere. Congress had initially hoped that Canada would join them as the fourteenth colony, but when that failed to happen, an invasion of Canada was authorized.

Two expeditions were undertaken. On September 16, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen, capturing Montreal on November 13. General Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, escaped to Quebec.

The second expedition, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold, set out from Fort Western (present day Maine) on September 25. The expedition was a logistical nightmare, and by the time Arnold reached Quebec in early November, he had but 600 of his original 1,100 men. Nevertheless, Arnold demanded the surrender of the city, to no avail.

Montgomery joined Arnold, and they attacked Quebec on December 31, but were soundly defeated by Carleton. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and many men were taken prisoner. The Americans held on outside Quebec until the spring of 1776, and then withdrew.

Another attempt was made by the Americans to push back towards Quebec, but failed at Trois-Rivi貥s on June 8, 1776. Carleton then launched his own invasion, and defeated Arnold in a naval battle on Lake Champlain (the Battle of Valcour Island) in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion of Canada had begun.

The invasion of Canada ended as an embarrassing disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s improvised navy on Lake Champlain managed to delay the fateful British counter thrust (the Saratoga Campaign) until 1777.

New York and New Jersey, 1776-77

Having withdrawn from Boston, the British now focused on capturing New York City. General Howe, with the services of his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe, began amassing troops on Staten Island in July of 1776.

General Washington, with a smaller army of about 20,000 men, unwittingly violated a cardinal rule of warfare, and divided his troops about equally between Long Island and Manhattan, thus allowing Howe to engage only one half of the American army at a time.

In late August, the Howes transported about 22,000 men (including 9,000 Hessian mercenaries) to Long Island. In the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, the British expertly executed a surprise flanking maneuver, driving the Americans back to the Brooklyn Heights fortifications. General Howe then laid siege to the works, but Washington skillfully managed a nighttime evacuation to Manhattan.

Having taken Long Island, the Howes moved to seize Manhattan. On September 15, General Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City. The Americans withdrew to Harlem Heights, where they skirmished the next day, but held their ground.

When Howe moved to encircle Washington’s army in October, the Americans again fell back, and a battle at White Plains was fought on October 28, 1776. Once more the Americans retreated, but Howe, instead of aggressively pursuing the withdrawal, returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November, taking almost 3,000 prisoners. Four days later, Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from Fort Washington, was also taken.

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An iconic image: millions of Americans know this painting depicts Washington Crossing the Delaware, even if they do not remember why he crossed it. (Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Metropolitan Museum)

General Lord Charles Cornwallis continued to chase Washington’s army through New Jersey, until the Americans withdrew across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December. With the campaign at an apparent conclusion for the season, the British entered winter quarters. Although Howe had missed several opportunities to crush the diminishing American army, he had killed or captured over 5,000 of the rebels. He controlled much of New York and New Jersey, and was in a good position to resume operations in the spring, with the rebel capital of Philadelphia in striking distance.

The outlook of the Continental Army—and thus the revolution itself—was bleak. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine, who was with the army on the retreat. The army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty, and would be reduced to 1,400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Spirits were low, popular support was wavering, and Congress had abandoned Philadelphia in despair.

Washington reacted by taking the offensive, stealthily crossing the Delaware on Christmas night and capturing nearly 1,000 Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. Cornwallis marched to retake Trenton, but was outmaneuvered by Washington, who successfully attacked the British rearguard at Princeton on January 3, 1777. Washington then entered winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, having retaken much of New Jersey, and having secured two bold, morale-boosting victories in quick succession to reinvigorate the flagging revolution.

Saratoga Campaign, 1777

In the summer of 1777, the British launched a new expedition from Canada. Led by General Burgoyne, the intention was to seize the Lake Champlain and Hudson River corridor, effectively isolating New England from the rest of the American colonies. Burgoyne?s invasion had two components: he would lead about 10,000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York, while a second column of about 2,000 men, led by Barry St. Leger, would move down the Mohawk River valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany.

Burgoyne set off in early July, recapturing Fort Ticonderoga from the retreating Americans without firing a shot. He then proceeded overland towards Albany, but the Americans slowed his progress through the wilderness by destroying bridges and felling trees in his path. Running short on supplies, in August Burgoyne sent a detachment to raid nearby Bennington, Vermont. The raiders were decisively defeated by local American militia, depriving Burgoyne of nearly 1,000 men and the much-needed supplies.

Meanwhile, St. Leger—half of his force Indians led by Joseph Brant—had laid siege to Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk River. About 800 American militiamen from a nearby fort marched to relieve the siege, but were ambushed and scattered by British and Indians at the Battle of Oriskany on August 6. When a second relief expedition approached, this time led by Benedict Arnold, the siege was lifted, and St. Leger?s expedition returned to Canada. Burgoyne was on his own.

Burgoyne pushed on towards Albany, his forces now reduced to about 6,000 men. An American army of about 8,000 men, commanded by the newly arrived General Horatio Gates, had entrenched about ten miles south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne sent 2,000 men to outflank the American position, but was checked by Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan in the first battle of Saratoga on September 19, 1777. After the battle, the two armies dug in.

Burgoyne was in trouble now, but he hoped that help from the south might be on the way. All along, Burgoyne had suggested that his invasion from Canada might be supported by a British offensive up the Hudson River from Howe's location in New York City. However, British war planners did not coordinate their efforts. General Howe had instead sailed away from New York on an expedition to capture Philadelphia (see next section). British General Henry Clinton, left in command at New York, did indeed sail up the Hudson in October, capturing several forts and burning Kingston (then the rebel capital of New York), but his efforts were not enough to affect the events at Saratoga.

American militiamen, many of them outraged by the reported murder of an American woman at the hands of Burgoyne?s Indian allies, flocked to Gates?s army, swelling his force to 11,000 by the beginning of October. Burgoyne, his position becoming desperate, launched a new offensive, the second battle of Saratoga on October 7. The attack was repelled, and General Arnold, though relieved of command by Gates, rushed to the battle and led a decisive counterattack. Badly beaten, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17.

Saratoga was the turning point of the war. American confidence and determination, suffering from Howe?s successful occupation of Philadelphia, was renewed. Even more importantly, the victory encouraged France to enter the war against Great Britain. Spain and Holland soon did the same. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated.

Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-78

Having secured New York City in his 1776 campaign, in 1777 General Howe concentrated on capturing the American capital of Philadelphia. He moved slowly, landing 15,000 troops in late August at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, about 55 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Washington positioned his 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia, but was outflanked and driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The Continental Congress once again abandoned the city. British and American forces maneuvered around each other for the next several days, clashing in minor encounters such as the so-called ?Paoli Massacre.? On September 26, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington, and marched into Philadelphia unopposed.

After taking the city, the British garrisoned about 9,000 troops in Germantown, five miles above Philadelphia. Washington unsuccessfully attacked Germantown in early October, and then retreated to watch and wait. Meanwhile, the British secured the Delaware River by taking (with difficulty) forts Mifflin and Mercer in November.

General Washington?s problems at this time were not just with the British. In the so-called Conway Cabal, some politicians and officers unhappy with Washington?s recent performance as commander-in-chief secretively discussed his removal. Washington, offended by the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, laid the whole matter openly before Congress. His supporters rallied behind him, and the episode abated.

Washington and his army encamped at Valley Forge in December of 1777, about 20 miles from Philadelphia, where they would stay for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. However, the army eventually emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a training program supervised by Baron von Steuben.

Meanwhile, there was a shakeup in the British command, with General Clinton replacing Howe as commander-in-chief. French entry into the war had changed British war strategy, and Clinton was ordered by the government to go on the defensive in the North. He abandoned Philadelphia and marched back towards New York City.

The Americans shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal, and forced a battle at Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the last major battle in the North. Washington's second-in-command, General Charles Lee, ordered a controversial retreat during the battle, angering Washington and allowing Clinton?s army to escape. By July, Clinton was in New York City, and Washington was again at White Plains. Both armies were back where they had been two years earlier. With the exception of scattered minor actions in the North, like the Battle of Stony Point, the focus of the war now shifted elsewhere.

War in the West

For more details and for references on the war in the West, see the article: Frontier warfare during the American Revolution

In the American West—which was then west of the Appalachians, south of the Great Lakes, and east of the Mississippi River—the American Revolutionary War was an Indian War. The British and the Americans both courted Indians as allies (or urged them to remain neutral), and so many Native American communities became divided over which path to take. The influential Iroquois Confederacy was eventually plunged into civil war, while other groups, such as the Cherokees and Shawnees, split into factions. Delawares under White Eyes signed the first Indian treaty with the United States, but other Delawares joined the British.

's 180-mile trek in the dead of winter led to the capture of General , Lieutenant-Governor of .
George Rogers Clark's 180-mile trek in the dead of winter led to the capture of General Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant-Governor of Canada.

Indeed, most American Indians who joined the fight fought against the United States, since native lands were threatened by ever expanding Anglo-American settlement. The British supplied their Indian allies from forts along the Great Lakes, and tribesmen staged raids on Patriot settlements in New York, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley and at Cherry Valley in 1778 helped provoke the scorched earth Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779. On the brutal western front, every man, woman, and child—regardless of race—was a potential casualty.

In the Ohio Country, the Virginia frontiersman George Rogers Clark attempted to neutralize British influence among the Ohio tribes by capturing the outposts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes in the summer of 1778. When General Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit, retook Vincennes, Clark returned in a surprise march in February of 1779 and captured Hamilton himself.

However, a decisive victory in the West eluded the United States even as their fortunes had risen in the East. The low point on the frontier came in 1782 with the Gnadenhutten massacre, when Pennsylvania militiamen—unable to track down enemy warriors—executed nearly 100 Christian Delaware noncombatants, mostly women and children. Later that year, in the last major encounter of the war, the Battle of Blue Licks, a party of Kentuckians was soundly defeated by a superior force of British regulars and Native Americans. For generations in the United States, the exploits of George Rogers Clark were practically the only stories told about the Revolution in the West; other parts of the tale were apparently best left unremembered.

War in the South

During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the North. One notable exception was in June of 1776, when General Henry Clinton sailed south to attack Charleston, South Carolina. This ended in humiliating defeat for the British, and the revolutionaries remained in control of the southern colonies for the next three years. Starting in 1778, the British once again turned their attention to the colonies of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, where they hoped to regain control with the assistance of southern Loyalists.

Georgia, 1778-79

On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps of 3,500 men from Clinton's army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. A joint Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779. In this assault Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish commander of Patriot cavalry, was mortally wounded. With Savannah secured, Clinton could now launch a new assault on Charleston, South Carolina, where he had failed so miserably in 1776.

Carolinas, 1780-81

Clinton finally moved against Charleston in 1780, blockading the harbor in March, and building up about 10,000 troops in the area. Inside the city, General Benjamin Lincoln commanded about 2,650 Continentals and 2,500 militiamen. When British Colonel Banastre Tarleton cut off the city?s supply lines in victories at Monck?s Corner in April and Lenud?s Ferry in early May, Charleston was surrounded.

Missing image
The young and dashing Banastre Tarleton was perhaps the best cavalry commander in the war—and the most hated man in the South. This portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1782.

The besiegers dug trenches closer and closer to the city until, on May 12, 1780, General Lincoln surrendered his 5,000 men—the largest surrender of U.S. troops until the American Civil War. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South?s biggest city and seaport, winning perhaps the greatest British victory of the war, and paving the way for what seemed like certain conquest of the South.

The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina, but were pursued by Colonel Tarleton, who defeated them at the Battle of Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. A story (probably exaggerated) quickly spread that Tarleton had massacred many Americans after they had surrendered. ?Bloody Tarleton? became a hated name among the rebels, and ?Tarleton?s quarter?—referring to his reputed lack of mercy (or ?quarter?)—soon became a Patriot rallying cry.

With these events, organized Patriot resistance in the South had collapsed, though the war was carried on by American partisans such as Francis Marion. General Clinton turned over British operations in the South to Lord Cornwallis.

The Continental Congress dispatched the "hero of Saratoga," General Horatio Gates, to the rescue with a new army. But Gates promptly suffered one of the worst defeats in American military history at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.

The tables were quickly turned on Cornwallis, however. One wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, delaying his move into North Carolina. Kings Mountain was noteworthy because it was not a battle between British redcoats and American troops: It was a battle between American Loyalists and American Patriots. The Revolutionary War was in many ways a civil war; this was especially true in the South.

Gates was replaced by George Washington's most dependable subordinate, General Nathanael Greene. Greene assigned about 1,000 men to General Daniel Morgan, a superb tactician who crushed Tarleton?s troops at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781.

Greene proceeded to wear down his opponents in a series of battles (Guilford Court House, Hobkirk's Hill, Ninety Six, and Eutaw Springs), each of them tactically a victory for the British, but giving no strategic advantage to the victors. Greene summed up his approach in a motto that would become famous: "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." Unable to capture or destroy Greene's army, Cornwallis turned his attention to Virginia.

Virginia, 1775-81

Virginia had been under revolutionary control since Loyalist forces (including runaway slaves) under Governor Dunmore had been defeated at the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775. Dunmore and his troops took refuge on British ships off of Norfolk. Dunmore ordered the town burned on January 1, 1776. He was driven from an island in Chesapeake Bay that summer, never to return.

British forces raided Virginia sporadically during the war. In January 1781, the rebel capital of Richmond was put to the torch by none other than Benedict Arnold, who had sold his services to the other side and was now a British general.

In March 1781, General Washington dispatched Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman had 3,200 men at his command, but British troops in the colony, now reinforced and commanded by Cornwallis, totaled 7,200. Lafayette skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. "The boy cannot escape me," Cornwallis is supposed to have said. However, Cornwallis was unable to trap Lafayette, and so he moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia in July in order to link up with the British navy. As fate would have it, the navy that eventually met Cornwallis at Yorktown was not British.

War at sea

Main article: Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War

Meanwhile the co-operation of the French became active. In July Count Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island. That place had been occupied by the British from 1776 to the close of 1779. An unsuccessful attempt was made to drive them out in 1778 by the Americans assisted by the French admiral d'Estaing and a French corps.

Gulf Coast

After Spain declared war against Great Britain in June of 1779, Count Bernardo de Gᬶez, the governor of Louisiana, seized three British Mississippi River outposts: Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Gᬶez then captured Mobile on March 14, 1780, and in May of 1781 forced the surrender of the British outpost at Pensacola, Florida. On May 8, 1782, Gᬶez captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas.



The Franco-British war spilled over into India in 1780, in the form of the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The two chief antagonists here were Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and a key French ally, and the British government of Madras. The Anglo-Mysore conflict was bloody but inconclusive, and ended in a draw at the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784.


Also in 1780, the British struck against the United Provinces of the Netherlands in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War to preempt Dutch involvement in a league of armed neutrality directed primarily against the British Navy during the war. Agitation by Dutch radicals, and a friendly attitude towards the United States by the Dutch government, influenced by the American Revolution also encouraged the British to attack. The war lasted into 1784 and was disastrous to Holland's mercantile economy.


On 5 February 1782 Spanish and French forces captured Minorca; it was recovered by the British in 1798.


An interesting footnote to this war was the actual landing on Britain itself of a fleet from the American Navy. This occured in 1778 when the Cumbrian port of Whitehaven was raided by John Paul Jones. The landing was a surprise attack, taken as an action of revenge by Jones, and was never intended as an invasion. Nevertheless, it caused hysteria in England, with the attack showing a weakness that could be exploited by other states such as France or Spain. Its result was an intense period of fortification in British ports.

War's end

The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged at Yorktown in 1781. On September 5, 1781, French naval forces defeated the British Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis's supplies and transport. Washington hurriedly moved his troops from New York, and a combined Franco-American force of 17,000 troops commenced the Battle of Yorktown on October 6, 1781. Cornwallis's position quickly became untenable, and on October 19 his army surrendered. The war was all but over.

Missing image
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (John Trumbull, 1797). Despite the painting's title, Cornwallis (claiming illness) was not present and is not depicted. Washington is on horseback in the right background; because the British commander was absent, military protocol dictated that Washington have a subordinate—in this case Benjamin Lincoln—accept the surrender.

British Prime Minister Lord North resigned upon hearing the news from Yorktown. In April 1782, the British House of Commons voted to end the war with the American colonies. On November 30, 1782 preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 and the United States Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783.

The reasons for Great Britain's misfortunes and defeat may be summarized as follows: Misconception by the home government of the temper and reserve strength of her colonists; disbelief at the outset in the probability of a protracted struggle covering the immense territory in America; consequent failure of the British to use their more efficient military strength effectively; the safe and Fabian generalship of Washington; and finally, the French alliance and European combinations by which at the close of the conflict Great Britain was without a friend or ally on the continent.

Decisive victory eluded the United States on the western frontier. However, Great Britain negotiated the Paris peace treaty without consulting her Indian allies, and ceded Indian territory to the United States. Full of resentment, Native Americans reluctantly confirmed these land cessions with the United States in a series of treaties, but the result was essentially an armed truce—the fighting would be renewed in conflicts along the frontier, the largest being the Northwest Indian War.

Casualties and survivors

The total loss of life resulting from the American Revolutionary War is unknown. As was typical in the wars of the era, disease claimed more lives than battle. Often overlooked is the fact that the war took place in the context of a massive smallpox epidemic in North America that probably killed more than 130,000 people. Historian Joseph J. Ellis suggests that Washington's decision to have his troops inoculated may have been the commander-in-chief's most important strategic decision.2

Casualty figures for the American revolutionaries have varied over the years; a recent scholarly estimate lists 6,824 killed and 8,445 wounded in action. The number of American Patriot troop deaths from disease and other non-combat causes is estimated at about 18,500.3

Approximately 1,200 German mercenaries were killed in action and 6,354 died from illness or accident. About 16,000 of the remaining German troops returned home, but roughly 5,500 remained in the United States after the war for various reasons, many becoming American citizens. No reliable statistics exist for the number of casualties among other groups, including American Loyalists, British regulars, American Indians, French and Spanish troops, and civilians.

According to data from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, George Fruits, died in 1876 at the age of 114. However, Fruits was never on a pension roll. The last surviving veteran may have been Daniel F. Bakeman (died 1869), who was placed on the pension rolls by an act of U.S. Congress and is listed as the last survivor of the conflict by the United States Department of Veterans' Affairs.

See also


  • Note 1: For the total number of warriors, see Merrell, p. 393. For number of Iroquois warriors, see Boatner, p. 545.
  • Note 2: For smallpox epidemic, see Fenn, p. 275. A great number of these smallpox deaths occurred outside the theater of war — in Mexico or among American Indians west of the Mississippi River. For Washington's decision, see Ellis, p. 87.
  • Note 3: Chambers, p. 849.


  • Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0811705781.
  • Chambers, John Whiteclay II, ed. in chief. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0195071980.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN 1400040310.
  • Fenn, Elizabeth Anne. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. ISBN 0809078201.
  • Merrell, James H. "Indians and the new republic" in Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole, eds., The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, pp. 392-98. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991; reprint 1999.
  • Wood, W. J. Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781. Originally published Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1990; reprinted by Da Capo Press, 1995. ISBN 0306806177 (paperback); ISBN 0306813297 (2003 paperback reprint).

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