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American Revolutionary War (E Pluribus Unum)

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American Revolutionary War
Rev collage
Date April 19, 1775 – April 11, 1783

(7 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 2 days)

Location Eastern North America, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, Central America; French, Dutch, and British colonial possessions in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and elsewhere;

European coastal waters, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic and Indian Oceans

Result American independence

Peace of Paris

British recognition of the United States of America

End of the First British Empire

  • All Continental North American Holdings lost to the United States
  • Gibraltar lost to Spain
  • Senegal ceded to France
Belligerents
US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross United States of America

Royal Standard of the King of France France (1778–83)
Bourbon Spain Flag Spain (1779–83)

Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors) Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross George Washington

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Nathanael Greene

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Horatio Gates

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Richard Montgomery

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Daniel Morgan

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Henry Knox

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Benedict Arnold

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

US flag 13 stars – Betsy Ross Marquis de La Fayette

Royal Standard of the King of France Comte de Rochambeu

Royal Standard of the King of France Comte de Grasse

Royal Standard of the King of France Duc de Crillon

Royal Standard of the King of France Bailli de Suffren

Bourbon Spain Flag Bernardo de Gálvez

Bourbon Spain Flag Luis de Córdova

Bourbon Spain Flag Juan de Lángara

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Sir William Howe

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Thomas Gage

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Henry Clinton

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Lord Cornwallis (POW)

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Sir Guy Carlton (POW)

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) John Burgoyne (POW)

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) George Eliott

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) George Rodney

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Richard Howe

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Sir Hector Munro

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Wilhelm von Knyphausen

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Banastre Tarleton

Flag of the United Kingdom (3-5) Joseph Brant

First phase, 1775–1778

Outbreak of the War 1775-1776

Massachusetts

In February 1775 Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British North American commander-in chief, commanded four regiments of British regulars (about 4000 men) from his headquarters in Boston, but the countryside was in the hands of the Revolutionaries. On April 14, he received orders to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders.

On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord, Massachusetts. Riders including Paul Revere alerted the countryside, and when British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found 77 Minutemen formed up on the village green. Shots were exchanged, killing several Minutemen. The British moved on to Concord, where a detachment of three companies was engaged and routed at the North Bridge by a force of 500 minutemen. As the British retreated back to Boston, thousands of militiamen attacked them along the roads, inflicting many casualties before timely British reinforcements prevented a total disaster. With the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the war had begun.

The militia converged on Boston, bottling up the British in the city. About 4500 more British soldiers arrived by sea, and on June 17, 1775, British forces under General William Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Instead of landing behind the Americans, a move that would not only have easily won the battle but also expose the rest of the rebel army to destruction, the British mounted a costly frontal attack. The Americans fell back, but British losses totaled over 1000 men. The siege was not broken, and Gage was soon replaced by Howe as the British commander-in-chief.

In July 1775, newly appointed General Washington arrived outside Boston to take charge of the colonial forces and to organize the Continental Army. Realizing his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. Arsenals were raided and some manufacturing was attempted; 90% of the supply (two million pounds) was imported by the end of 1776, mostly from France. Patriots in New Hampshire had seized powder, muskets and cannons from Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth Harbor in late 1774. Some of the munitions were used in the Boston campaign.

The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter. During this time Washington was astounded by the failure of Howe to attack his shrinking, poorly armed force. In early March 1776, heavy cannons that the patriots had captured at Fort Ticonderoga were brought to Boston by Colonel Henry Knox, and placed on Dorchester Heights. Since the artillery now overlooked the British positions, Howe's situation was untenable, and the British fled on March 17, 1776, sailing to their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia, an event now celebrated in Massachusetts as Evacuation Day. Washington then moved most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City.

Quebec

Main Article: Invasion of Canada

Soon after the Revolutionary War broke out in April of 1775, a small force led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured the fortress of Ticonderoga in May, Arnold then followed this success with a raid on Fort Saint-Jean , near Montreal , scaring the British leadership. These actions considered both the British and Rebels to consider a possibility for an invasion of Canada. Quebec 's governor, General Guy Carleton, mobilized the provincial army. Initially rejected the idea of an invasion of Canada, Congress authorized the Continental Army's commander of the Northern Department, Major General Philip Schuyler, to invade Canada if he felt it was absolutely necessary.

The Continental Army moved into Quebec by September 1775. Its goal was to drive away the troops of Great Britain. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery led the force from Fort Ticonderoga, up Lake Champlain , besieged Fort St. Jean, and capturing Montreal in November. Arnold led a force of around 1000 men from Cambridge on the military expedition through Maine heading towards Quebec shortly after Montgomery left Ticonderoga

Main Article: Battle of Quebec

A storm had broke on December 30, and the Americans had already ordered several attacks on Quebec city. Montgomery led his men down a steep, snow-heaped path toward the outer British defenses. The snow storm had turned into a blizzard, making the American advance a struggle. Montgomery soon led 50 men down a street towards a two-story building. The building formed a part of the defense of Quebec. Quickly noticing soldiers inside, Montgomery ordered the men fall back. The British shot. Around 5 men were killed.

While Montgomery was advancing, Arnold advanced his main force towards the northern end of the lower town. They passed the gates and some British gunners undetected. As soon as the body moved around the palace gate, fire broke out from the walls above them. The height of these walls made it impossible to return fire. Arnold ordered his men to run forward. Arnold almost was shot in the ankle, but the bullet missed. The men soon captured a nearby barricade. They easily advanced further down the city, eventually breaking morale, ending with half the British forces surrendering. The British may have won this battle if a force of 500 men on ships had not sunken due to the earlier storm. the City of Quebec was now under the control of American forces.

Expelling the royal officials

The British had a significant force only in Boston. The Patriots in all 13 colonies, quickly established new revolutionary governments based around various committees and conventions that they had created in 1774 and early 1775. Royal officials found themselves powerless to stop the rebellion and were forced to flee. The Patriots were energetic and were backed by angry mobs while the Loyalists were too intimidated or poorly organized to be effective without the British army. The term "lynching" originated when Virginia Patriots held informal courts and arrested Loyalists (the term did not suggest execution).

Loyalist writings throughout the conflict persistently claimed that they were the majority, and influenced London officials to believe that it would be possible to raise many Loyalist regiments. As late as 1780 the Loyalists were deceiving themselves and top London officials about their supposedly strong base of support.

Patriots overwhelmed the Loyalists in the Snow Campaign in South Carolina in late 1775. Virginia's governor Lord Dunmore attempted to rally a loyalist force but was decisively beaten in December 1775 at the Battle of Great Bridge. In February 1776 British General Clinton took 2000 men and a naval squadron to assist Loyalists mustering in North Carolina, only to call it off when he learned they had been crushed at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge. In June he tried to seize Charleston, South Carolina, the leading port in the South, but the attack failed as the naval force was repulsed by the Patriot forts.

Apart from the original thirteen, no other British North American colony joined the rebellion.

Campaign of 1776-77

New York

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Having withdrawn his army from Boston, General Howe now focused on capturing New York City, which then was limited to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. With the capture of Montreal by the Americans, Howe had to divert a substantial number of soldiers to upstate New York to try to retake Quebec back from American forces. Howe's force arrived off Staten Island on June 30, 1776 and his army captured it without resistance. To defend the city, General Washington spread his forces along the shores of New York's harbor, concentrated on Long Island, right across from where Howe's forces were located. While the British had failed to hired Hessian troops due to their lack of faith in the British to beat back the growing revolution, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence read to his men and the citizens of the city. The speech delivered by Washington and Arnold's recent victory in Quebec bolstered morale in the 10,000 soldiers defending the island and brought in many newly signed militiamen to help protect the island.

Washington's position was extremely entrenched along the coastline with artillery located on the highest point on the island, dubbed "Battle Hill". Washington's main objective was to not let New York fall to the British and wait until reinforcements came in to help support Washington's forces. The British landed 16,000 men on Long Island in late August and fought the largest battle in the war's history. In a single day the British lost 780 men and 1820 were injured in the fight, compared to the Americans losing only 28 men with 129 injured. Howe and Cornwallis continued to try and lay siege to the city, but he was continually forced to stall every block due to heavily entrenched American soldiers and local militiamen. By the end of August 28th, Howe had slowly pushed the Americans back to the Brooklyn Heights. On August 29th Commanders Henry Knox and John Sullivan marched across the East River to flank the British within the Brooklyn Heights, only at the last minute did Howe notice the American advance and ordered Cornwallis to hold the exposed flank. By the end of August 30th combined American forces had pushed British troops out of the Brooklyn Heights and back to the initial stages of the fight forcing them back over the Hudson Bay and back to Staten Island.

Small skirmishes would continue to break out between Washington and Howe's forces, until on September 11th when Washington and his forces would land on Staten Island in the dead of night surprising British forces. Washington would capture over 1000 of Howe's men, As Howe and Cornwallis attempted to escape American forces they would end up being split and divided by a flanking of Knox's and Sullivan's forces. Sending Cornwallis into New Jersey and Howe retreating into upstate New York.

New Jersey

Generals Henry Knox and John Sullivan continued to chase Cornwallis and his men through New Jersey, Cornwallis would've escaped had it not been for General Howe insisting that he'd turn and fight the American forces that chased him. Cornwallis set up a hastily built entrenchment to fight the quickly encroaching Knox and Sullivan. On December 7th Cornwallis would engage in what would help seal the fate the war, with the Battle of the Delaware, in which Cornwallis and his men were forced to surrender after eight hours of intensive fighting and Cornwallis being hit with a stray bullet in his leg. He and his remaining forces were captured by Knox and Sullivan, while those who escaped either fled to meet with Howe or retreat South across the Delaware.

Campaigns of 1777–78

When the British began to plan operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America: an army in Quebec (later under the command of John Burgoyne), and Howe's army in New York. In London, Lord George Germain approved a campaign for these armies to converge on Albany, New York and divide the American colonies in two. Germain's orders were vague and were not interpreted by his commanders as he expected. Howe was permitted from launching an attack on the rebel capital, Philadelphia, due to the string of American victories and the casualties that had been afflicting British forces. Howe would go against those orders believing that taking the rebel capital would help turn the war in favor of the British. As a result the northern army was lost in a disastrous surrender at Saratoga. Both Carleton and Howe resigned after the 1777 campaign.

Upstate New York

The first of the 1777 campaigns was an expedition from Quebec led by General John Burgoyne. The goal 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 8000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York, while a second column of about 2000 men, led by Barry St. Leger, would move down the Mohawk River Valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany.

Burgoyne set off in June, and failed to recapture Fort Ticonderoga in early July. Thereafter, his march was slowed by the Americans who literally knocked down trees in his path, and by his army's extensive baggage train. A detachment sent out to seize supplies was decisively defeated in the Battle of Bennington by American militia in August, depriving Burgoyne of nearly 1000 men.

Meanwhile, St. Leger — more than half of his force Native Americans led by Sayenqueraghta — had laid siege to Fort Stanwix. American militiamen and their Native American allies marched to relieve the siege but were ambushed and scattered at the Battle of Oriskany. When a second relief expedition approached, this time led by Benedict Arnold, St. Leger's Indian support abandoned him, forcing him to break off the siege and return to Quebec.

Burgoyne's army had been reduced to about 6000 men by the loss at Bennington and the need to garrison Quebec, and he was running short on supplies. Despite these setbacks, he determined to push on towards Albany. An American army of 8000 men, officially commanded by General Horatio Gates (but effectively being led by his subordinate Benedict Arnold), had entrenched about 10 miles (16 km) south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne tried to outflank the Americans but was checked at the first battle of Saratoga in September. Burgoyne's situation was desperate, but he now hoped that help from Howe's army in New York City might be on the way. It was not: Howe had instead sailed away on his expedition to capture Philadelphia. American militiamen flocked to Gates' army, swelling his force to 11,000 by the beginning of October. After being badly beaten at the second battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17.

British General Clinton in New York attempted a diversion in favor of Burgoyne in early October, capturing two key forts but withdrawing after hearing of the surrender.

Saratoga was the turning point of the war, along with capture and defeat of Cornwallis in New Jersey. Revolutionary confidence and determination was renewed. What is more important, the victory encouraged France to make an open alliance with the Americans, after two years of semi-secret support. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated.

The Americans held the British prisoners taken at Saratoga until the end of the war, in direct violation of the agreed surrender terms, which specified they would be repatriated immediately.

Foreign Intervention

From 1776, France had informally been involved in the American Revolutionary War, with French admiral Latouche Tréville having provided supplies, ammunition and guns from France to the United States after Thomas Jefferson encouraged a French alliance. Guns such as de Valliere type were used, playing an important role in such battles as the Battle of Saratoga. After learning of the American victory at Saratoga, the French became concerned that the British would reconcile their differences with the colonists and turn on France. In particular, King Louis XVI was influenced by alarmist reports suggesting that Britain was preparing to make huge concessions to the colonies and then, allied with them, strike at French and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. To thwart this, they concluded a Treaty of Alliance with the United States on February 6, 1778, committing the Americans to seek nothing less than absolute independence. Previously France had only been willing to act in conjunction with their Spanish ally but now they were willing to go to war alone if necessary. Britain responded by recalling its ambassador, although Franco-British hostilities did not actually break out until June 17, 1778.

In 1776, the Count of Aranda met in representation of Spain with the first U.S. Commission composed by Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. The Continental Congress had charged the commissioners to travel to Europe and forge alliances with other European powers that could help break the British naval blockade along the North American coast. Aranda invited the commission to his house in Paris, where he was acting as Spanish ambassador and he became an active supporter of the struggle of the fledgling Colonies, recommending an early and open Spanish commitment to the Colonies. However, he was overruled by José Moñino, 1st Count of Floridablanca who opted for a more discreet approach. The Spanish position was later summarized by the Spanish Ambassador to the French Court, Jerónimo Grimaldi, in a letter to Arthur Lee who was in Madrid trying to persuade the Spanish government to declare an open alliance. Grimaldi told Lee that "You have considered your own situation, and not ours. The moment is not yet come for us. The war with Portugal — France being unprepared, and our treasure ships from South America not being arrived — makes it improper for us to declare immediately." Meanwhile, Grimaldi reassured Lee, stores of clothing and powder were deposited at New Orleans and Havana for the Americans, and further shipments of blankets were being collected at Bilbao.

Spain finally officially entered the war in June 1779, thus implementing the Treaty of Aranjuez, although the Spanish government had been providing assistance to the revolutionaries since the very beginning of the war. So too had the Dutch Republic, which was formally brought into the war at the end of 1780.

Second Phase, 1778-1781

British Attempt to make peace

Following news of the surrender at Saratoga, the capture of Montreal, Cornwallis' capture, and concern over French intervention, the British decided to completely accept the original demands made by the American Patriots. Parliament repealed the remaining tax on tea and declared that no taxes would ever be imposed on colonies without their consent (except for custom duties, the revenues of which would be returned to the colonies). A Commission was formed to negotiate directly with the Continental Congress for the first time. The Commission was empowered to suspend all the other objectionable acts by Parliament passed since 1763, issue general pardons, and declare a cessation of hostilities. The Commissioners arrived in America in June 1778 and offered the Americans complete internal self-government as well as representation in the British parliament. Parliament's authority over America would be limited to managing foreign affairs, including trade, in the manner that they did prior to 1763. Moreover, they agreed that no troops would be placed in the colonies without their consent. The Congress rejected this and refused to negotiate with the commission unless they first acknowledged American independence or withdrew all troops. On October 3, 1778, the British published a proclamation offering amnesty to any colonies or individuals who accepted their proposals within forty days, implying serious consequences if they still refused. There was no positive reply.

In London King George III gave up all hope of subduing America by more armies, while Britain had a European war to fight. "It was a joke", he said, "to think of keeping Quebec". There was no hope of recovering New England or Eastern Canada. But the King was still determined "never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal". His plan was to keep the 30,000 men garrisoned in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Rupertland, and Florida; other forces would attack the French and Spanish in the West Indies. To punish the Americans the King planned to destroy their coasting-trade, bombard their ports; sack and burn towns along the coast and turn loose the Native Americans to attack civilians in frontier settlements. These operations, the King felt, would inspire the Loyalists; would splinter the Congress; and "would keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse" and they would beg to return to his authority. The plan meant destruction for the Loyalists and loyal Native Americans, an indefinite prolongation of a costly war, and the risk of disaster as the French and Spanish assembled an armada to invade the British Isles. The British planned to re-subjugate the rebellious colonies after dealing with the Americans' European allies.

Northern theater after Saratoga, 1778-81

French entry into the war had changed British strategy, and Clinton abandoned Upstate New York to reinforce Boston, now vulnerable to French naval power. Washington shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal through New York and attacked him at the Hudson River on June 28, 1778. The battle was tactically inconclusive but Clinton successfully disengaged and continued his retreat to Massachusetts. It was the last major battle in the north. Clinton's army went to Boston in July, arriving just before a French fleet under Admiral d'Estaing arrived off the American coast. Washington's army returned to Worcester, Massachusetts, west of the city. Although British armies were back where they had been two years earlier, the nature of the war had now changed as the British had to withdraw troops from North America to counter the French elsewhere.

In August 1778 the Americans attempted to capture British-held Newport, Rhode Island with the assistance of France, but the effort failed when the French withdrew their support. The war in the north then bogged down into a stalemate, with neither side capable of attacking the other in any decisive manner. The British instead attempted to wear out American resolve by launching various raiding expeditions such as Tryon's raid against Connecticut in July 1779. In that year the Americans won two morale-enhancing victories by capturing posts at Stony Point and Paulus Hook, although the British quickly retook them. In October 1779 the British voluntarily abandoned Newport and Stony Point in order to consolidate their forces.

During the winter of 1779–80 the American army suffered worse hardships than they had in New England previously. The Congress was ineffective, the Continental currency worthless, and the supply system was fundamentally broken. However, Washington was able to keep soldiers' spirits high with the constant reminders of previous victories they had achieved against greater odds than a "Simple cold winter's day..."

In July 1780 the American cause received a boost when a 5500-man strong French expeditionary force arrived at Newport, Rhode Island. Washington hoped to use this assistance to attack the British at New York and end the war. Events elsewhere, however, would frustrate this. Additional French reinforcements were prevented from arriving by a British blockade of French ports, and the French troops at Newport quickly found themselves blockaded as well. However, the French fleet alleviated pressure to the American coast in 1780, having achieved significant victories in the West Indies.

Northern and Western Frontier

West of the Appalachian Mountains and along the border with Quebec, the American Revolutionary War was an "Indian War". Most Native Americans supported the British. Like the Iroquois Confederacy, tribes such as the Shawnee split into factions, and the Chickamauga split off from the rest of the Cherokee over differences regarding peace with the Americans. The British supplied their native allies with muskets, gunpowder and advice, while Loyalists led raids against civilian settlements, especially in New York, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and at Cherry Valley in New York in 1778 provoked Washington to send the Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779. There was little fighting as Sullivan systematically destroyed the Indians' winter food supplies, forcing them to flee permanently to British bases in Quebec and the Niagara Falls area.

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

In March 1782, Pennsylvania militiamen killed about a hundred neutral Native Americans in the Gnadenhütten massacre. In the last major encounters of the war, a force of 200 Kentucky militia was defeated at the Battle of Blue Licks in August 1782.

Southern Frontier

During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the north, although some attempts to organize Loyalists were defeated, a British attempt at Charleston, South Carolina failed, and a variety of efforts to attack British forces in East Florida failed. After French entry into the war, the British turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting large numbers of Loyalists. This southern strategy also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where the British needed to defend economically important possessions against the French and Spanish.

On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from Clinton's army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. An attempt by French and American forces to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779. Clinton then besieged Charleston, capturing it and most of the southern Continental Army on May 12, 1780. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South's biggest city and seaport, providing a base for further conquest.

The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina but were pursued by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who defeated them at the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. With these events, organized American military activity in the region collapsed, though the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion. Tarleton took over British operations, while Horatio Gates arrived to command the American effort. On August 16, 1780, Gates was defeated at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, setting the stage for Tarleton to invade North Carolina. Georgia and South Carolina were thus both restored to Britain for the time being.

Tarleton's efforts to advance into North Carolina were frustrated. A Loyalist wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, which temporarily aborted his planned advance. He received reinforcements, but his light infantry under Tarleton was decisively defeated by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781. In spite of this, Tarleton decided to proceed, gambling that he would receive substantial Loyalist support. General Nathanael Greene, who replaced General Gates, evaded contact with Tarleton while seeking reinforcements. By March, Greene's army had grown to the point where he felt that he could face Tarleton directly. In the key Battle of Guilford Court House, Tarleton drove Greene's much larger army off the battlefield, but in doing so suffered casualties amounting to one-fourth of his army. Compounding this, far fewer Loyalists were joining up than expected because the Patriots put heavy pressure on them and their families, who would become hostages. Tarleton decided to retreat to coastal Wilmington, North Carolina for resupply and reinforcement, leaving the interior of the Carolinas and Georgia open to Greene. He then proceeded north into Virginia.

American troops in conjunction with Patriot partisans then began the process of reclaiming territory in South Carolina and Georgia. Despite British victories at Hobkirk's Hill and at the Siege of Ninety-Six, by the middle of the year they had been forced to withdraw to the coastal lowlands region of both colonies. The final battle (Battle of Eutaw Springs) in September 1781 was indecisive but by the end of the year the British held only Savannah and Charleston.

Virginia, 1781

Tarleton proceeded from Wilmington north into Virginia, on the grounds that Virginia needed to be subdued in order to hold the southern colonies. Earlier, in January 1781, a small British raiding force under William Phillips had landed there, and began moving through the countryside, destroying supply depots, mills, and other economic targets. In February, General Washington dispatched General Lafayette to counter Phillips, later also sending General Anthony Wayne. Phillips was reinforced with additional troops from New York in March, and his army was joined with that of Tarleton in May. Lafayette skirmished with Tarleton, avoiding a large-scale battle while gathering reinforcements.

Tarleton's Virginia campaign was strongly opposed by his superior, General Clinton, who did not believe such a large and disease-ridden area, with a hostile population, could be pacified with the limited forces available. Clinton instead favored conducting operations further north in the Chesapeake region (Maryland, Delaware, and southern Pennsylvania) where he believed there was a strong Loyalist presence. Upon his arrival at Williamsburg in June, Tarleton received orders from Clinton to establish a fortified naval base and a request to send several thousand troops to New York to counter a possible Franco-American attack. Following these orders, he fortified Yorktown, and, shadowed by Lafayette, awaited the arrival of the Royal Navy.

The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. The French fleet became available for operations, which could either move against Yorktown or New York. Washington still favored attacking New York, but the French decided to send the fleet to their preferred target at Yorktown. Learning of the planned movement of the French fleet in August, Washington began moving his army south to cooperate. The British fleet, not realizing that the French had sent their entire fleet to America, dispatched an inadequate force under Admiral Graves.

In early September, French naval forces defeated the British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Tarleton's escape. Tarleton, still expecting to receive support, failed to break out while he had the chance. When Washington's army arrived outside Yorktown, Tarleton prematurely abandoned his outer position, hastening his subsequent defeat. The combined Franco-American force of 18,900 men began besieging Tarleton in early October. For several days, the French and Americans bombarded the British defenses, and then began taking the outer redoubts. The British attempted to cobble together a relief expedition, but encountered numerous delays. Tarleton decided his position was becoming untenable and he surrendered his entire army of over 7000 men on October 19, 1781, the same day that the British fleet at New York sailed for his relief.

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