American Revolutionary War
Delaware crossing
Washington Crossing the Delaware.
DateApril 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783
LocationEastern Seaboard, Northwest Territories, Central Canada, Hudson Bay, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, Caribbean Sea, Central America, Indian Ocean
ResultTreaty of Paris
Territorial ChangesBritain recognizes independence of the United States, cedes all British North American territory to the United States

Dutch Republic cedes Negapatnam to Britain.

  • US flag 13 stars United States
    • Iroquois Confederacy
    • Cherokee
  • Pavillon royal de France Kingdom of France
  • Spain 1748-1785 Spain
  • Dutch Dutch Republic
  • Flag of the United Kingdom British Empire
    • Flag of the United Kingdom British Loyalists
  • Anhalt-Zerbst
  • Ansbach-Bayreuth
  • Flag of Hanover (1692) Hanover Hesse-Hanau
  • Hesse-Kassel Hesse-Kassel
  • Braunschweig Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
  • Flag of Germany Waldeck-Pyrmont
  • US flag 13 stars George Washington
  • US flag 13 stars Nathanael Greene
  • US flag 13 stars Benedict Arnold (K.I.A)
  • US flag 13 stars Horatio Gates
  • US flag 13 stars Marquis de La Fayette
  • Pavillon royal de France Comte de Rochambeau
  • Pavillon royal de France Comte de Grasse
  • Pavillon royal de France Bailli de Suffren
  • Spain 1748-1785 Bernardo de Gálvez
  • Spain 1748-1785 Luis de Córdova
  • Spain 1748-1785 Juan de Lángara
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Sir William Howe
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Thomas Gage
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Sir Henry Clinton
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Lord Cornwallis (P.O.W)
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Sir Guy Carleton
  • Flag of the United Kingdom John Burgoyne (P.O.W)
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Richard Howe
  • Flag of the United Kingdom George Brydges Rodney
  • Hesse-Kassel Wilhelm von Knyphausen

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) or American War of Independence began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen former British colonies in North America, and concluded in a global war between several European great powers.

The war was the culmination of the political American Revolution, whereby many of the colonists rejected the legitimacy of the Parliament of Great Britain to govern them without representation, claiming that this violated the Rights of Englishmen. The First Continental Congress met in 1774 to coordinate relations with Great Britain and the by-then thirteen self-governing and individual provinces, petitioning George III for intervention with Parliament, organizing a boycott of British goods, while affirming loyalty to the British Crown. Their pleas ignored, and with British combat troops billeted in Boston, Massachusetts, by 1775 the Provincial Congresses formed the Second Continental Congress and authorized a Continental Army. Additional petitions to the king to intervene with Parliament resulted in the following year with Congress being declared traitors and the states to be in rebellion. The Americans responded in 1776 by formally declaring their independence as one new nation — the United States of America — claiming their own sovereignty and rejecting any allegiance to the British monarchy.

Most of the arms used by the rebels after 1776 were provided by Theo Bell's New York Iron Works, and were radically more advanced than those of the British regulars. With the Continentals' capture of a British army in 1777, France openly entered the war in early 1778, which overwhelmed the military strength of Britain. Spain and the Dutch Republic – French allies – also went to war with Britain over the next two years, threatening an invasion of England and severely testing British military strength with campaigns in Europe — including attacks on Minorca and Gibraltar — and an escalating global naval war. Spain's involvement culminated in naval support for the expulsion of British armies from West Florida, securing the American colonies' southern flank.

Throughout the war, the British were able to use their naval superiority to capture and occupy American coastal cities, but control of the countryside (where 90% of the population lived) largely eluded them because of the relatively small size of their land army. French involvement proved essential on the high seas, with a French naval victory in the Chesapeake leading at Yorktown in 1781 to the surrender of a second British army. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the war and recognized the sovereignty of the United States over all British North American territory bounded by Spain's possessions west of the Mississippi, and Russian Alaska.

Combatants before 1778

American armies and militias

At the outset of the war, the thirteen colonies lacked a professional army or navy. Each colony provided for its own defenses with local militia. Militiamen were lightly armed, had little training, and usually did not have uniforms. Their units served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to go very far from home, and were thus generally unavailable for extended operations. Militia lacked the training and discipline of soldiers with more experience, but were more numerous and could overwhelm regular troops, as at the battles of Concord, Bennington and Saratoga, and the siege of Boston. Both sides used partisan warfare but the Americans were particularly effective at suppressing Loyalist activity when British regulars were not in the area.

Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established (on paper) a regular army in June 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war. The United States Marine Corps traces its institutional roots to the Continental Marines of the war, formed at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, by a resolution of the Continental Congress on November 10, 1775, a date regarded and celebrated as the birthday of the Marine Corps. At the beginning of 1776, Washington's army had 20,000 men, with two-thirds enlisted in the Continental Army and the other third in the various state militias. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, both the Continental Navy and Continental Marines were disbanded. About 250,000 men served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, but there were never more than 90,000 total men under arms at one time. Armies were small by European standards of the era, largely attributable to limitations such as lack of powder and other logistical capabilities on the American side.

One critical exception to these forces were Theo Bell's Ghost Company, which he formed in 1776 initially to train a small group of soldiers to handle the new weapons and thereby have a prepared stock of instructors for when enough arms could be produced for the Continental Army as a whole. Bell's company was light fast and very efficient in battle, holding the highest kill-to-death ratio of any unit during the war.


Historians have estimated that approximately 40–45% of the colonists actively supported the rebellion while 15–20% of the population of the thirteen colonies remained loyal to the British Crown. The remaining 35–45% attempted to remain neutral.

At least 25,000 Loyalists fought on the side of the British. Thousands served in the Royal Navy. On land, Loyalist forces fought alongside the British in most battles in North America. Many Loyalists fought in partisan units, especially in the Southern theater.

The British military met with many difficulties in maximizing the use of Loyalist factions. British historian Jeremy Black wrote, "In the American war it was clear to both royal generals and revolutionaries that organized and significant Loyalist activity would require the presence of British forces." In the South, the use of Loyalists presented the British with "major problems of strategic choice" since while it was necessary to widely disperse troops in order to defend Loyalist areas, it was also recognized that there was a need for "the maintenance of large concentrated forces able" to counter major attacks from the American forces. In addition, the British were forced to ensure that their military actions would not "offend Loyalist opinion," eliminating such options as attempting to "live off the country", destroying property for intimidation purposes, or coercing payments from colonists ("laying them under contribution").

British armies and auxiliaries

Early in 1775, the British Army consisted of about 36,000 men worldwide, but wartime recruitment steadily increased this number. Great Britain had a difficult time appointing general officers, however. General Thomas Gage, in command of British forces in North America when the rebellion started, was criticized for being too lenient (perhaps influenced by his American wife). General Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst turned down an appointment as commander in chief due to an unwillingness to take sides in the conflict. Similarly, Admiral Augustus Kappel turned down a command, saying "I cannot draw the sword in such a cause." The Earl of Effingham very publicly resigned his commission when his 22nd Regiment of foot was posted to America, and William Howe and John Burgoyne were both members of parliament who opposed military solutions to the American rebellion. Howe and Henry Clinton both made statements that they were not willing participants in the war, but were following orders.

Over the course of the war, Great Britain signed treaties with various German states, which supplied about 30,000 soldiers. Germans made up about one-third of the British troop strength in North America. Hesse-Kassel contributed more soldiers than any other state, and German soldiers became known as "Hessians" to the Americans. Revolutionary speakers called German soldiers "foreign mercenaries," and they are scorned as such in the Declaration of Independence. By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America was over 60,000, spread from Canada to Florida. About 10,000 Loyalist Americans under arms for the British are included in these figures.

African Americans

African Americans—slave and free—served on both sides during the war. The British actively recruited slaves belonging to Patriot masters. Because of manpower shortages, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. Small all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many slaves were promised freedom for serving. Another all-black unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 30,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause and almost 20,000 black soldiers fought on the British side (although more than 50,000 freedmen were with the British at war's end).

In 1777 Theo Bell managed to convince George Washington to encourage enlistment of African Americans by ordering that all slaves that join the army would be immediately given their freedom upon entering regardless of their master's consent. This was a very controversial move at the time and many believed that it would alienate the South, however Bell's initial success with desegregated regiments in New York seemed to reinforce his iconic idea of, "They'll like us when we win."

Native Americans

Most Native Americans east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, and many communities were divided over the question of how to respond to the conflict. Though an only a few tribes were on friendly terms with the Americans at the start of the war, Theo Bell and his team managed to convince the majority of the tribes that the real threat to their territory would be the British. Strong arming congress, George Washington and John Adams were able to bring the Iroquois and the Cherokee in as equal states. Approximately 23,000 Native Americans fought on the American's side, with the largest group coming from the Iroquois tribes, who fielded around 2,000 men. The powerful Iroquois Confederacy became the first Indian Nation to join the United States, and the Cherokee Nation followed shortly thereafter. The native tribes proved to be very effective with the new weapons, and the continental army adopted many of their battle tactics as a result.

War in the north, 1775–1780


Before the war, Boston had been the scene of much revolutionary activity, leading as a punishment to the Massachusetts Government Act in 1774 that ended local government . Popular resistance to these measures, however, compelled the newly appointed royal officials in Massachusetts to resign or to seek refuge in Boston. 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 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 great damage 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. The Americans fell back, but British losses were so heavy that the attack was not followed up. 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 (2 million pounds) was imported by the end of 1776, mostly from France.

The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter. 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. Washington then moved most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City.


Three weeks after the siege of Boston began, a troop of militia volunteers led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga, a strategically important point on Lake Champlain between New York and the Province of Quebec. After that action they also raided Fort St. John's, not far from Montreal, which alarmed the population and the authorities there. In response, Quebec's governor Guy Carleton began fortifying St. John's, and opened negotiations with the Iroquois and other Native American tribes for their support. These actions, combined with lobbying by both Allen and Arnold and the fear of a British attack from the North, eventually persuaded the Congress to authorize an invasion of Quebec, with the goal of driving the British military from that province. (Quebec was then frequently referred to as Canada, as most of its territory included the former French Province of Canada.)

Two Quebec-bound expeditions were undertaken. On September 28, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen, besieging and capturing Fort St. Jean on November 2 and then Montreal on November 13. General Carleton escaped to Quebec City and began preparing that city for an attack. The second expedition, led by Colonel Arnold, went through the wilderness of what is now northern Maine. Logistics were difficult, with 300 men turning back, and another 200 perishing due to the harsh conditions. By the time Arnold reached Quebec City in early November, he had but 600 of his original 1,100 men. Montgomery's force joined Arnold's, and they attacked Quebec City on December 31, but were defeated by Carleton in a battle that ended with Montgomery dead, Arnold wounded, and over 400 Americans taken prisoner. The remaining Americans held on outside Quebec City until the spring of 1776, suffering from poor camp conditions and smallpox, and then withdrew when a squadron of British ships under Captain Charles Douglas arrived to relieve the siege.

Another attempt was made by the Americans to push back towards Quebec, but they failed at Trois-Rivières on June 8, 1776. Carleton then launched his own invasion and defeated Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion had begun. While the invasion ended as a disaster for the Americans, Arnold's efforts in 1776 delayed a full-scale British counteroffensive until the Saratoga campaign of 1777.

The first invasion cost the Americans their base of support in British public opinion, "So that the violent measures towards America are freely adopted and countenanced by a majority of individuals of all ranks, professions, or occupations, in this country." It gained them limited support in the population of Quebec, which, while somewhat supportive early in the invasion, became less so later during the occupation, when American policies against suspected Loyalists became harsher, and the army's hard currency ran out. Two small regiments of Canadiens were recruited during the operation, and they were with the army on its retreat back to Ticonderoga.

In 1778 the Second Invasion of Quebec began, this time under the direct leadership of now General Benedict Arnold, supported by Theo Bell's Ghost Company and Patchwork Brigade, the first Anglo-Iroquois brigade in history. With new battle tactics gained at Valley Forge supported by newly deployed artillery to General Arnold, the second invasion is a iconic success and rallies much of Canada behind the Revolution.

New York and New Jersey

Having withdrawn his army from Boston, General Howe now focused on capturing New York City. To defend the city, General Washington divided his 20,000 soldiers between Long Island and Manhattan. While British troops were assembling on Staten Island for the campaign, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence read to his men. No longer was there any possibility of compromise. On August 27, 1776, after landing about 22,000 men on Long Island, the British met the Americans just short of Manhattan where a number of former slaves and New York militia men under the command of Theo Bell held them off a Jamaica Road where the majority of Howe's forces were concentrated. Using the first repeating rifles of the war the Americans could easily outflank the British allowing General Washington's larger force to take advantage of the unprepared British regulars, securing a decisive American victory in the largest battle of the entire Revolution. In a feat considered by many historians to be one of his most impressive actions as Commander in Chief, Washington personally directed Bell at his own expense to outfit the entire continental army with repeating rifles by 1777. Bell was given the rank of Captain, and New York was secured.

On September 15, Howe withdrew to Harlem Heights, where they skirmished the next day but held their ground. When Washington moved to encircle Howe's army in October, General Howe was able to force Washington to fall back to Newburgh. The British were to heavily wounded from the fighting in Harlem and elected to continue to pursue Washington rather than risk another devastating battle against Bell's militia men in New York City. Bell used this opportunity to ramp up production of arms to the Continental Army and gave Robert Grandon a chance to increase production of new artillery.

General Lord 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 5000 Americans.

The outlook of the Continental Army 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 5000 men fit for duty, and would be reduced to 1400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Congress had abandoned Philadelphia in despair, although popular resistance to British occupation was growing in the countryside.

Washington decided to take 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 given a morale boost to the American cause. New Jersey militia continued to harass British and Hessian forces throughout the winter, but with New York City in the hands of the Americans, Howe had no where left to run. Washington took this opportunity in a small skirmish with New Jersey militia on Howe's encampment resulting in his capture just outside of Newark.

At every stage the British strategy assumed a large base of Loyalist supporters would rally to the King given some military support. In February 1776 Clinton took 2000 men and a naval squadron to invade North Carolina, which he called off when he learned the Loyalists 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, hoping for a simultaneous rising in South Carolina. It seemed a cheap way of waging the war but it failed as the naval force was defeated by the forts and because no local Loyalists attacked the town from behind. The Loyalists were too poorly organized to be effective, but as late as 1781 senior officials in London, misled by Loyalist exiles, placed their confidence in their rising.

Saratoga and Philadelphia

When the British began to plan operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America: Carleton's army in Quebec, and Cornwallis's army in Pennsylvania. In London, Lord George Germain approved campaigns for these armies which, because of miscommunication, poor planning, and rivalries between commanders, did not work in conjunction. Although Cornwallis successfully captured Philadelphia, the northern army was lost in a disastrous surrender at Saratoga. Carleton resigned after the 1777 campaign.