The Revolutionary War fundamentally altered not just American history, but history itself. The surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown ended colonial rule, marking the birth of the United States. Before Yorktown, though, there were many battles, some more important than others. These battles, fought up and down the length of the eastern coast, changed the course of the Revolution and brought a new nation into the world.
Battles of Lexington and Concord
Fought on April 19, 1775, Lexington and Concord became known for “the shot heard round the world”. Skirmishes between British troops and America’s minutemen were the start of hostilities, but far from the end. The British expected professional troops with conventional tactics to win easily. Outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and underestimating their opponents, the British were defeated. The rebellion was now in full swing.
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Siege of Boston
Defeat at Lexington and Concord led to the Siege of Boston. Beginning on April 19, 1775, British occupation of Boston and nearby Charlestown lasted nearly a year, until the British evacuated the city on March 17, 1776. For much of the siege, the Continental Army was limited to skirmishes at Boston’s outskirts, but when Henry Knox led the cannon of Fort Ticonderoga to the city, Commander William Howe quickly ushered his forces out. The loss of Boston was a severe blow to British prestige. A major harbor had fallen—lending the rebels much-needed credibility abroad.
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Battle of Quebec
December 31, 1775 saw defeat for the Americans—their first significant loss in the Revolution. The Continental Army’s Northern Department made an attempt to invade Quebec and incite a corresponding rebellion in Canada that failed entirely. The American troops suffered serious casualties, not least General Richard Montgomery, while the soon-to-be-infamous General Benedict Arnold was wounded. Over 400 Americans were also captured, including Daniel Morgan. The British defenders saw only small losses.
Battle of Long Island
The Battle of Long Island was the first of the Revolution to take place after the Declaration of Independence and occurred on August 27, 1776. Part of General Howe’s campaign to take New York and New Jersey, the British won the battle but not the war. Despite suffering defeat in the single largest engagement of the war, the Continental Army was still able to make an orderly retreat instead of being thoroughly demolished by Howe and his forces. The British held New York until the war’s end, inflicting further defeats at White Plains and Fort Washington, but the Continental Army survived to fight another day. Coupled with the later defeat at Saratoga, Long Island was a pivotal moment where the American cause could have been lost.
Battle of Trenton
Further British defeats followed at Trenton and Princeton. Having failed to destroy the Continental Army at Long Island, Howe over-reached himself trying to take and hold New Jersey. Trenton was a small affair, but its importance far outweighed that of many larger battles. Fought on December 26, 1776, General Washington’s troops badly needed a victory. At Trenton they got it, drawing thousands of new recruits to their cause and reinvigorating the Continental Army.
Battles of Princeton and Assunpink Creek
The Battles of Princeton and Assunpink Creek, fought on January 2, 1777, further emboldened the rebel cause. In his famous crossing of the Delaware, Washington’s troops defeated the British twice in the same day. Again, the battlefield victories were small ones, but their consequences were enormous. With repeated defeats—three in as few as 10 days—the British evacuated southern New Jersey altogether.
Another flood of new recruits joined the rebel cause as a result; morale, which was beginning to increase after its nadir at the Battle of Long Island, improved still further. The rebels now really believed they could win the war and establish a new nation. English historian Sir George Trevelyan later wrote “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”
Battle of Saratoga
After Princeton, British troops under General Burgoyne launched an invasion from Quebec. Had General Howe supported Burgoyne in the invasion instead of marching on Philadelphia, the Saratoga campaign could have been a British victory. Instead it proved disastrous on and off the battlefield, as Burgoyne was defeated at Saratoga in October 1777. In 1778, France formally allied itself with the rebels. Spain, though not an American ally, supported the French. Now engaged against multiple opponents on multiple fronts, the British outlook began to darken.
Cornwallis's Southern Strategy
1780 saw British fortunes decline still further in America and around the world. The Second Mysore War erupted in British-held India, while the Netherlands declared a separate war on the British. The Second Mysore War was inconclusive, neither side gaining any ground. The fourth Anglo-Dutch War resulted in a British victory, but greatly depleted British manpower and resources. The failure of General Cornwallis’s Southern strategy, an attempt to incite a Loyalist uprising in the South, was disastrous.
Operating mainly in modern Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina, Cornwallis hoped a mixture of conventional battles, guerrilla warfare, and a Loyalist uprising would cripple the rebel cause. It failed. Too few Loyalists came forward; Cornwallis also lost battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens. Even the crushing American defeat at Camden on August 16, 1780 couldn’t turn back the rebel tide.
Battle of Kings Mountain
Kings Mountain, fought in North Carolina on October 17 1780, was a rarity. Fought largely between opposing militia units instead of regular soldiers, it was a surprise victory for the rebels. Loyalist commander Major Patrick Ferguson was killed and his troops routed, forcing Cornwallis to abandon plans to invade North Carolina. Cowpens, fought on January 1781, saw the British troops encircled and virtually destroyed. Far from invading North Carolina, Cornwallis was soon forced to retreat to Yorktown instead.
Battle of Yorktown
Besieged at Yorktown, Cornwallis’s only sources of support and supply were naval. On September 5, 1781, a Franco-American fleet defeated the British near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The Battle of the Chesapeake saw British supply lines cut. Their position both in Yorktown and the American colonies became untenable. Hoping to at least save some of his army, Cornwallis was forced to surrender on October 19, 1781.
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The French alliance secured by victory at Saratoga in 1777 had been critical in forcing defeat in 1781. Once besieged, Cornwallis faced French troops on land and their fleet at sea. The appearance of professional troops and sailors further bolstered rebel numbers and effectiveness. Had Burgoyne won the Saratoga campaign that alliance might not have been sealed. Once it was, so too was the fate of Britain’s American colonies. The Revolutionary War was over, and a new nation was born.
Featured photo of "Surrender of Lord Cornwallis" by John Trumbull: Wikimedia Commons