The Fires of Liberty (1776-1783). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

The Fires of Liberty (1776-1783). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

Articles of confederation.

Early Patriot triumphs and losses.

Victory at Saratoga.

Surrender of Cornwallis.

 Great though it is, the Declaration of Independence, a human document, is imperfect. It failed to deal with the issue of slavery (Jefferson’s fellow southerners. struck the references he had included), and it failed to specify just how the separate colonies, each with its own government and identity, could unite in a single government. Throughout the early years of the Revolution, the Continental Congress struggled with this issue and finally produced, in November 1777, the Articles of Confederation.

A timid document, the Articles gave the individual states—not the federal government—most of the power, including the authority to levy taxes; after all, “taxation without representation” had triggered the rupture with England. Eventually, the Articles would be scrapped in favor of a brand-new, much bolder Constitution. But the earlier document, the product of agonizing debate, would hold the nation together through a Revolutionary War that, like most wars, went on much longer than either side had any reason to expect.

The Longest Odds. While the framers of the Articles of Confederation in Philadelphia did battle with words and ideas, soldiers in the field fought with powder and lead. Politician and militiaman alike were well aware that, if King George earnestly willed it, if he sent to America everything lie had, the colonies would, in all likelihood, be defeated. But during the early years of the war, Britain was surprisingly slow to take the offensive.

Siege of Boston. Most of the “Lobsterbacks” (as the colonials called the red-coated British troops) were bottled up in Boston, to which Washington’s forces laid siege. Try as they might, the British were unable to break out of their entrenchments. Then, when Washington arrayed his artillery on Dorchester Heights, British commanders gave the order to evacuate by sea in March 1776, reestablishing their headquarters at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Down South. While His Majesty’s forces were being humiliated in New England, Sir Henry Clinton sailed with his troops along the southern coast. His purpose was to rally property-rich Loyalists against the upstart, ragtag rabble of the newly established “American” governments in the Carolinas and Georgia. As he prepared to disembark at Cape Fear, North Carolina, Clinton received news that a Loyalist uprising had been squelched by Patriot forces at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge near Wilmington, North Carolina, on February 27, 1776, Clinton pressed southward, reaching Charleston Harbor. Seeking to establish a base for Loyalist resistance, Clinton bombarded Charleston’s harbor fortifications, but Patriot forces drove off the British by June 28, 1776. It was a valuable triumph, which stalled British activity in the South for more than two years.

A Pale Flush of Victory. The first 12 months of the war had gone far better than any self-respecting oddsmaker would have predicted. The British had been forced out of New England and the South. However, a key American hope had also been dashed. The Patriots had tried to persuade the French citizens of Quebec to make common cause with them against the British. American strategists understood that, as long as the British conducted the war from far-off London, the Patriot cause would enjoy a great advantage. However, if the British should begin to use nearby Canada as the staging area for an invasion of the colonies, that advantage would evaporate. Unfortunately, the French Canadians were unwilling to initiate any action themselves. But, fortified by successes in defending against the British in New England and the South, the Americans decided to take the offensive.

An army under General Richard Montgomery marched from upper New York and captured Montreal on November 10, 1775. Simultaneously, troops commanded by Colonel Benedict Arnold advanced through the wilderness of Maine to unite with Montgomery’s units in an attack on the walled city of Quebec. The invaders were beaten back, and Montgomery was killed on December 30. American forces maintained a blockade of the Canadian capital through May 1776, but the offensive in Canada had petered out, and Americans would stay out of the region for the rest of the war.

The British Lion Roars. There was worse, much worse, to come.

Beginning in the summer of 1776, British forces wrested the initiative from the Americans. British general Guy Carleton, the very able governor of Quebec, was ordered to chase the Americans out of Canada and down through the region of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. This action would sever the far northern tier of colonies from the southern. Simultaneously, a much larger army led by General William Howe (who had replaced Gage as supreme commander of Britain’s North American forces) was assigned to capture New York City and its strategically vital harbor.

Carleton succeeded handily in driving the remaining Americans out of Canada, but, plagued by supply problems and the approach of winter, was unable to pursue them back below the border. This setback, however, did not stop Howe, who hurled against New York City the largest single force the British would ever field in the Revolution: 32,000 troops, 400 transports, 73 warships (commanded by his vice-admiral brother, Richard Howe, with whom he shared the American supreme command), It was all too apparent to General Washington that, militarily, the situation in New York was hopeless. In the course of the war, the American commander would prove highly skilled at the art of the strategic withdrawal, pulling back in a manner that cost the attacker and yet left his own forces intact to fight another day. This is precisely what he wanted to do in the case of New York, but Congress, fearing that the loss of a major city would dispirit Patriots throughout the colonies, ordered him to defend the position. Washington met with defeat on Long Island on August 27, 1776.

If Washington and the Continental Congress had weighed the odds more soberly, perhaps they would have raised the white flag. But Washington did not surrender. Instead, he fought a series of brilliant rearguard actions against Howe on Manhattan Island, which cost the British time, money, and energy. It took Howe from August to November to clear Washington’s forces from New York City and its environs. Then, instead of moving inland via the Hudson, Howe simply pushed Washington across New Jersey. If he had hoped to corner and fight the Continental Army to a standstill, Howe was mistaken. The Americans escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7, 1776.

Recrossing the Delaware. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine had written just two years earlier. The present times transformed Washington’s men into a determined and disciplined army, even in the depths of the war’s first vicious winter. Washington, as General Howe saw the situation, was defeated, crushed. Certainly, he had no business striking back, especially not in this inclement season. Howe was a competent European general. In Europe, the proper times of year for fighting were spring, summer, and fall. In Europe, armies did not fight in winter. But Washington understood: This was not Europe. Collecting his scattered regulars and militiamen, General Washington reorganized his army and led it back across the Delaware River, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

On December 26, 1776, Washington surprised and overran a garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey, then went on to an even bigger victory at Princeton on January 3, 1777. The triumphs were a sharp slap in General Howe’s face. Fortified by these miraculous victories, Congress rejected the peace terms the Howe brothers, in their capacity as peace commissioners, proposed. The fight for independence would continue.

Saratoga Morning. Wearily, the British laid out plans for a new assault on the northern colonies. Major General Burgoyne was in charge of Britain’s Canadian-based army, but he and Howe failed to work out a plan for coordinating their two forces. Burgoyne led his army down the customary Lake Champlain-Hudson River route, while Howe was stalled by indecision. Finally, he decided not to support Burgoyne’s offensive but to leave a garrison under Sir Henry Clinton in New York City and to transport the bulk of his army by sea to attack Philadelphia. It was a fatal blunder.

Burgoyne’s operation began promisingly, as the American Northern army, suffering from lack of supply and disputes among its own commanders, fell back before the British advance. Burgoyne, popularly known as “Gentleman John,” was so confident of victory that he invited officers to bring wives and mistresses on the campaign. He staged sumptuous dinner parties for all engaged in the grand enterprise of teaching the rebels a lesson they would never forget. At his arrogant leisure, Burgoyne advanced on and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga on July 5, 1777, but he moved at such an unhurried pace that American forces had plenty of time to regroup for guerrilla combat in the wilderness of upstate New York. The Americans destroyed roads, cut lines of communication and supply, and generally harassed Burgoyne’s columns. At Bemis Heights, on the west bank of the Hudson River, he was met by the revitalized Northern forces of the Continental Army commanded by Horatio Gates and supported by Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan. At the opening of the Battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne charged the Americans twice, on September 19 and October 7, 1777, only to be beaten back with heavy losses both times. Blocked to the south and without aid from Clinton, Gentleman John surrendered 6,000 regulars plus various auxiliaries to the Patriot forces on October 17, 1777.

Trouble in the City of Brotherly Love. Despite the triumph at Saratoga, the news was not all good for the Americans. Howe took his army by sea and landed on upper Chesapeake Bay, 57 miles outside of Philadelphia, poised for an assault on that city. On October 4, 1777, Howe won Philadelphia, the American capital.

But what, really, had the British gained? An entire army, Burgoyne’s, was lost. Howe had paid dearly for the prize he now held. In contrast, the American forces remained intact, and the rebellion continued. Most important of all, the French were deeply impressed by the American victory at Saratoga, not the British capture of Philadelphia.

Viva La France! As early as 1776, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, persuaded his king to aid—albeit secretly—the American cause. Prudently, Vergennes withheld overt military aid until he was confident of the Americans’ prospects for victory. He did not want to risk a losing war with Britain. The victory at Saratoga, rumors that Britain was going to offer America major territorial concessions to bring peace, and the extraordinary diplomatic skills of Benjamin Franklin (whom Congress had installed in Paris as its representative during this period) finally propelled France openly into the American camp. An alliance was formally concluded on February 6, 1778, whereby France granted diplomatic recognition to the “United States of America.” Shortly after the treaty of alliance was signed, Spain, a French ally, also declared war on Britain.

A Hard Forge. Nations may disagree and fight one another, and they may agree and fight together, but nature takes no notice in either case. The winter of 1778 visited great suffering on the Continental Army, which was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Yet on the cruel, cold anvil of that terrible winter, a stronger army was forged, in large part through the efforts of Baron von Steuben (1730-94), a Prussian officer who trained American troops to European standards. (A number of Europeans played valiant roles as volunteers in the service of the American Revolution. In addition to Baron von Steuben, these included Johann, Baron de Kalb [1721-80], a German in the French army, and two Polish patriots, Tadeusz Kocluszko [1746-1817] and Kasimierz Pulaski [ca. 1747-79]. Most famous of all was the Marquis de Lafayette [1757-1834], a brilliant commander fiercely loyal to Washington.) Spring brought Washington new recruits and the promise of French auxiliary forces, while it brought the British nothing but new pressures. The Howe brothers, having failed to crush the Revolution, resigned their commands and returned to England. Sir Henry Clinton assumed principal command in North America and evacuated his army from Philadelphia (which had proved a prize of no military value), concentrated his forces at New York City, and dispatched troops to the Caribbean in anticipation of French action there.

Washington pursued Clinton through New Jersey, fighting him to a stand at Monmouth Courthouse on June 28, 1778. The result, a draw, was nevertheless a moral victory for the Continentals, who had stood up to the best soldiers England could field. If Monmouth was not decisive, it did mark the third year of a war in which the British could show no results whatsoever.

White War, Red Blood. The American Revolution was really two wars. Along the eastern seaboard, it was a contest of one army against another. Farther inland, the fighting resembled that of the French and Indian War. Both sides employed Indian allies, but the British recruited more of them and used them as agents of terror to raid and burn outlying settlements. From the earliest days of the war, the royal lieutenant governor of Detroit, Henry Hamilton, played a key role in stirring the Indians of the Indiana-Illinois frontier to wage ferocious war on Patriot settlers. Hamilton’s Indian nickname tells the tale: they called him “Hair Buyer.” In 1778, the young George Rogers Clark (1752-1818), a hard-drinking Kentucky militia leader, overran the British-controlled Illinois and Indiana region and took “Hair Buyer” prisoner. Even more celebrated in the western war campaign—albeit less militarily significant—was the intrepid frontiersman Daniel Boone.

Bloody though the Kentucky frontier was, conditions were even worse on the New York—Pennsylvania frontier, which was terrorized by the Iroquois. Washington dispatched Major General John Sullivan into western New York with instructions to wipe out tribal towns wherever he found them. Nevertheless, the Iroquois persisted in raiding, as did the tribes throughout the Ohio country. They were supported and urged on by Loyalist elements in this region, and their combined activity would not come to an end even with the conclusion of the war. Indeed, this western frontier would smolder and be rekindled periodically, bursting into open flame as the War of 1812.

On Southern Fronts. In the lower South, the British found effective Indian allies in the Cherokee, who, despite suffering early defeats at the hands of the American militia in 1776, continued to raid the frontier. As the war ground on, the British regular army, which had generally neglected the South following early failures there, began to shift attention to the region by late 1778. The British reasoned that the region had a higher percentage of Loyalists than any other part of America and also offered more of the raw materials—indigo, rice, cotton—valued by the British.

In December 1778, British forces subdued Georgia, then, during 1779, fought inconclusively along the Georgia-South Carolina border. A combined French and American attempt to recapture British-held Savannah was defeated. In February 1780, Sir Henry Clinton arrived in South Carolina from New York with 8,700 fresh troops and laid siege to Charleston. In a stunning defeat, Charleston was surrendered on May 12 by American General Benjamin Lincoln, who gave up some 5,000 soldiers as prisoners. Quickly, General Horatio Gates led a force to Camden in upper South Carolina but was badly defeated on August 16, 1780, by troops under Lord Cornwallis, whom Clinton, returning to New York, had put in command of the Southern forces.

With the Tidewater towns in British hands, the Piedmont shouldered the task of carrying on the resistance. Such legendary guerrilla leaders as the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter cost the British dearly. Then, on October 7, 1780, a contingent of Patriot frontiersmen—most from the Watauga settlements in present-day eastern Tennessee—engaged and destroyed a force of 1,000 Loyalist troops at the Battle of King’s Mountain on the border of the Carolinas.

Triumph at Yorktown. Fresh from his seaboard conquests, Cornwallis was now pinned down by frontier guerrillas. A third American army under Major General Nathanael Greene launched a series of rapid operations in brilliant coordination with the South Carolina guerrillas. Dividing his small army, Greene dispatched Brigadier General Daniel Morgan into western South Carolina, where he decimated the “Tory Legion” of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of the Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Breaking free of the guerrillas, Cornwallis pursued Morgan, who linked up with Greene and the main body of the Southern army. Together, Morgan and Greene led Cornwallis on a punishing wilderness chase into North Carolina, then fought him to a draw at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781.

Cornwallis, effectively neutralized, withdrew to the coast. Greene returned to South Carolina, where he retook every British-held outpost, except for Charleston and Savannah. Although the enemy would hold these cities for the rest of the war, its possession was of negligible military value, because the occupying garrisons were cut off from the rest of the British forces.

Cornwallis had withdrawn to Virginia, where he joined forces with a raiding unit led by the most notorious turncoat in American history, Benedict Arnold. Cornwallis reasoned that Virginia was the key to possession of the South. Therefore, he established his headquarters at the port of Yorktown. General Washington combined his Continental troops with the French army of the Comte de Rochambeau and laid siege to Yorktown on October 6, 1781. Simultaneously, a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse prevented escape by sea. Seeing the situation, General Clinton dispatched a British naval squadron from New York to the Chesapeake, only to be driven off by de Grasse. Washington and Rochambeau relentlessly bombarded Yorktown. At last, the British general surrendered his 8,000 troops to the allies’ 17,000 men on October 19, 1781. As Cornwallis presented Washington with his sword, the British regimental band played a popular tune of times. It was called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The Least You Need to Know. George Washington’s greatest accomplishments were to hold his armies together during a long, hard war, to exploit British strategic and tactical blunders effectively, and to make each British victory extremely costly.

The Revolution did not end in American victory, so much as in the defeat of England’s will to continue to fight.

The Revolution was instantly perceived as a worldwide event—a milestone in the history of humankind.

Word for the Day. Following the practice of the day, King George III paid foreign mercenary troops to do much of his fighting in America. The Hessians came from the German principality of Hesse-Kassel. Although not all of the German mercenaries employed in the war came from this principality, most of them did. The name was applied to all the hired soldiers—about 30,000 in all—who fought in most of the major campaigns, usually answering to British commanders. Some Hessians stayed here after the war and became American citizens.

Word for the Day. The Tidewater is the traditional name for the coastal South. In colonial times the Piedmont (literally, “foot of the mountains”) was the region just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Tidewater was the more settled and affluent region, whereas the Piedmont was the poorer, more sparsely settled frontier region.


Real Life. Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was born in Norwich, Connecticut, and served as a teenager in the French and Indian War. During the Revolution, he handled himself brilliantly, but became embittered when he was passed over for promotion. When he served as commander of forces in Philadelphia, Arnold was accused of overstepping his authority, and he made matters worse by marrying Margaret Shippen (1779), the daughter of a prominent Loyalist. His new wife, accustomed to affluence, encouraged Arnold to spend freely, and he was soon buried in debt. Arnold was the British as a means of gaining promotion and cash. He offered them a plan to betray the fortifications at West Point, New York, but his treachery was revealed when British Major John Andre was captured in September 1780 carrying the turncoat’s message in his boot. Andre was executed as a spy, but Arnold escaped to enemy lines and was commissioned a brigadier general in the British army. In that capacity, he led two expeditions, one that burned Richmond, Virginia, and another against New London in his native Connecticut. However, he never received all of the career advancement and fortune the British has promised. He went to England in 1781, was plagued by a “nervous disease,” and died in London in 1801.


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