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Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783

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America’s War for Independence,


Figure 6.1 This famous 1819 painting by John Trumbull shows members of the

committee entrusted with drafting

the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Continental Congress

in 1776. Note the British flags on

the wall. Separating from the British Empire proved to be very difficult as the

colonies and the Empire were linked

with strong cultural, historical, and economic bonds forged over several


Chapter Outline

6.1 Britain’s Law-and-Order Strategy and Its Consequences

6.2 The Early Years of the Revolution

6.3 War in the South

6.4 Identity during the American Revolution


By the 1770s, Great Britain ruled a vast empire, with its American colonies

producing useful raw materials

and profitably consuming British goods. From Britain’s perspective, it was

inconceivable that the colonies

would wage a successful war for independence; in 1776, they appeared weak and

disorganized, no match

for the Empire. Yet, although the Revolutionary War did indeed drag on for eight

years, in 1783, the

thirteen colonies, now the United States, ultimately prevailed against the British.

The Revolution succeeded because colonists from diverse economic and social

backgrounds united in their

opposition to Great Britain. Although thousands of colonists remained loyal to the

crown and many others

preferred to remain neutral, a sense of community against a common enemy prevailed

among Patriots.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence (Figure 6.1) exemplifies the spirit

of that common cause.

Representatives asserted: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be

Free and Independent

States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, . . . And

for the support of this

Declaration, . . . we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our

sacred Honor.”


Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783

6.1 Britain’s Law-and-Order Strategy and Its Consequences

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Explain how Great Britain’s response to the destruction of a British

shipment of tea in

Boston Harbor in 1773 set the stage for the Revolution

• Describe the beginnings of the American Revolution

Great Britain pursued a policy of law and order when dealing with the crises in the

colonies in the late

1760s and 1770s. Relations between the British and many American Patriots worsened

over the decade,

culminating in an unruly mob destroying a fortune in tea by dumping it into Boston

Harbor in December

1773 as a protest against British tax laws. The harsh British response to this act

in 1774, which included

sending British troops to Boston and closing Boston Harbor, caused tensions and

resentments to escalate

further. The British tried to disarm the insurgents in Massachusetts by

confiscating their weapons and

ammunition and arresting the leaders of the patriotic movement. However, this

effort faltered on April 19,

when Massachusetts militias and British troops fired on each other as British

troops marched to Lexington

and Concord, an event immortalized by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as the “shot heard

round the world.”

The American Revolution had begun.


The decade from 1763 to 1774 was a difficult one for the British Empire. Although

Great Britain had

defeated the French in the French and Indian War, the debt from that conflict

remained a stubborn and

seemingly unsolvable problem for both Great Britain and the colonies. Great Britain

tried various methods

of raising revenue on both sides of the Atlantic to manage the enormous debt,

including instituting a tax

on tea and other goods sold to the colonies by British companies, but many subjects

resisted these taxes. In

the colonies, Patriot groups like the Sons of Liberty led boycotts of British goods

and took violent measures

that stymied British officials.

Boston proved to be the epicenter of protest. In December 1773, a group of Patriots

protested the Tea Act

passed that year—which, among other provisions, gave the East India Company a

monopoly on tea—by

boarding British tea ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumping tea worth over $1

million (in current

Figure 6.2

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Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783


prices) into the water. The destruction of the tea radically escalated the crisis

between Great Britain and

the American colonies. When the Massachusetts Assembly refused to pay for the tea,

Parliament enacted

a series of laws called the Coercive Acts, which some colonists called the

Intolerable Acts. Parliament

designed these laws, which closed the port of Boston, limited the meetings of the

colonial assembly, and

disbanded all town meetings, to punish Massachusetts and bring the colony into

line. However, many

British Americans in other colonies were troubled and angered by Parliament’s

response to Massachusetts.

In September and October 1774, all the colonies except Georgia participated in the

First Continental

Congress in Philadelphia. The Congress advocated a boycott of all British goods and

established the

Continental Association to enforce local adherence to the boycott. The Association

supplanted royal

control and shaped resistance to Great Britain.


Joining the Boycott

Many British colonists in Virginia, as in the other colonies,

disapproved of the destruction of the tea

in Boston Harbor. However, after the passage of the Coercive Acts, the

Virginia House of Burgesses

declared its solidarity with Massachusetts by encouraging Virginians to

observe a day of fasting and

prayer on May 24 in sympathy with the people of Boston. Almost

immediately thereafter, Virginia’s

colonial governor dissolved the House of Burgesses, but many of its

members met again in secret on

May 30 and adopted a resolution stating that “the Colony of Virginia

will concur with the other Colonies in

such Measures as shall be judged most effectual for the preservation of

the Common Rights and Liberty

of British America.”

After the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Virginia’s

Committee of Safety ensured that all

merchants signed the non-importation agreements that the Congress had

proposed. This British cartoon

(Figure 6.3) shows a Virginian signing the Continental Association

boycott agreement.

Figure 6.3 In “The Alternative of Williams-Burg” (1775), a merchant has

to sign a non-importation

agreement or risk being covered with the tar and feathers suspended

behind him.

Note the tar and feathers hanging from the gallows in the background of

this image and the demeanor of

the people surrounding the signer. What is the message of this

engraving? Where are the sympathies of

the artist? What is the meaning of the title “The Alternative of


In an effort to restore law and order in Boston, the British dispatched General

Thomas Gage to the

New England seaport. He arrived in Boston in May 1774 as the new royal governor of

the Province of


Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783

Massachusetts, accompanied by several regiments of British troops. As in 1768, the

British again occupied

the town. Massachusetts delegates met in a Provincial Congress and published the

Suffolk Resolves, which

officially rejected the Coercive Acts and called for the raising of colonial

militias to take military action if

needed. The Suffolk Resolves signaled the overthrow of the royal government in


Both the British and the rebels in New England began to prepare for conflict by

turning their attention to

supplies of weapons and gunpowder. General Gage stationed thirty-five hundred

troops in Boston, and

from there he ordered periodic raids on towns where guns and gunpowder were

stockpiled, hoping to

impose law and order by seizing them. As Boston became the headquarters of British

military operations,

many residents fled the city.

Gage’s actions led to the formation of local rebel militias that were able to

mobilize in a minute’s time.

These minutemen, many of whom were veterans of the French and Indian War, played an


role in the war for independence. In one instance, General Gage seized munitions in

Cambridge and

Charlestown, but when he arrived to do the same in Salem, his troops were met by a

large crowd of

minutemen and had to leave empty-handed. In New Hampshire, minutemen took over Fort

William and

Mary and confiscated weapons and cannons there. New England readied for war.


Throughout late 1774 and into 1775, tensions in New England continued to mount.

General Gage knew

that a powder magazine was stored in Concord, Massachusetts, and on April 19, 1775,

he ordered troops

to seize these munitions. Instructions from London called for the arrest of rebel

leaders Samuel Adams and

John Hancock. Hoping for secrecy, his troops left Boston under cover of darkness,

but riders from Boston

let the militias know of the British plans. (Paul Revere was one of these riders,

but the British captured

him and he never finished his ride. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized Revere

in his 1860 poem,

“Paul Revere’s Ride,” incorrectly implying that he made it all the way to Concord.)

Minutemen met the

British troops and skirmished with them, first at Lexington and then at Concord

(Figure 6.4). The British

retreated to Boston, enduring ambushes from several other militias along the way.

Over four thousand

militiamen took part in these skirmishes with British soldiers. Seventy-three

British soldiers and forty-

nine Patriots died during the British retreat to Boston. The famous confrontation

is the basis for Emerson’s

“Concord Hymn” (1836), which begins with the description of the “shot heard round

the world.” Although

propagandists on both sides pointed fingers, it remains unclear who fired that


Figure 6.4 Amos Doolittle was an American printmaker who volunteered to fight

against the British. His engravings

of the battles of Lexington and Concord—such as this detail from The Battle of

Lexington, April 19th 1775—are the

only contemporary American visual records of the events there.

After the battles of Lexington and Concord, New England fully mobilized for war.

Thousands of militias

from towns throughout New England marched to Boston, and soon the city was besieged

by a sea of rebel

forces (Figure 6.5). In May 1775, Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold led a

group of rebels against

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Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783


Fort Ticonderoga in New York. They succeeded in capturing the fort, and cannons

from Ticonderoga were

brought to Massachusetts and used to bolster the Siege of Boston.

Figure 6.5 This 1779 map shows details of the British and Patriot troops in and

around Boston, Massachusetts, at

the beginning of the war.

In June, General Gage resolved to take Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, the high

ground across the Charles

River from Boston, a strategic site that gave the rebel militias an advantage since

they could train their

cannons on the British. In the Battle of Bunker Hill (Figure 6.6), on June 17, the

British launched three

assaults on the hills, gaining control only after the rebels ran out of ammunition.

British losses were very

high—over two hundred were killed and eight hundred wounded—and, despite his

victory, General Gage

was unable to break the colonial forces’ siege of the city. In August, King George

III declared the colonies

to be in a state of rebellion. Parliament and many in Great Britain agreed with

their king. Meanwhile, the

British forces in Boston found themselves in a terrible predicament, isolated in

the city and with no control

over the countryside.

Figure 6.6 The British cartoon “Bunkers Hill or America’s Head Dress” (a) depicts

the initial rebellion as an elaborate

colonial coiffure. The illustration pokes fun at both the colonial rebellion and

the overdone hairstyles for women that

had made their way from France and Britain to the American colonies. Despite

gaining control of the high ground

after the colonial militias ran out of ammunition, General Thomas Gage (b), shown

here in a painting made in

1768–1769 by John Singleton Copley, was unable to break the siege of the city.


Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783

In the end, General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army

since June 15, 1775,

used the Fort Ticonderoga cannons to force the evacuation of the British from

Boston. Washington had

positioned these cannons on the hills overlooking both the fortified positions of

the British and Boston

Harbor, where the British supply ships were anchored. The British could not return

fire on the colonial

positions because they could not elevate their cannons. They soon realized that

they were in an untenable

position and had to withdraw from Boston. On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated

their troops to

Halifax, Nova Scotia, ending the nearly year-long siege.

By the time the British withdrew from Boston, fighting had broken out in other

colonies as well. In May

1775, Mecklenburg County in North Carolina issued the Mecklenburg Resolves, stating

that a rebellion

against Great Britain had begun, that colonists did not owe any further allegiance

to Great Britain, and

that governing authority had now passed to the Continental Congress. The resolves

also called upon the

formation of militias to be under the control of the Continental Congress.

Loyalists and Patriots clashed in

North Carolina in February 1776 at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge.

In Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, raised Loyalist forces to combat the

rebel colonists and also

tried to use the large slave population to put down the rebellion. In November

1775, he issued a decree,

known as Dunmore’s Proclamation, promising freedom to slaves and indentured

servants of rebels who

remained loyal to the king and who pledged to fight with the Loyalists against the

insurgents. Dunmore’s

Proclamation exposed serious problems for both the Patriot cause and for the

British. In order for the

British to put down the rebellion, they needed the support of Virginia’s

landowners, many of whom

owned slaves. (While Patriot slaveholders in Virginia and elsewhere proclaimed they

acted in defense of

liberty, they kept thousands in bondage, a fact the British decided to exploit.)

Although a number of slaves

did join Dunmore’s side, the proclamation had the unintended effect of galvanizing

Patriot resistance to

Britain. From the rebels’ point of view, the British looked to deprive them of

their slave property and incite

a race war. Slaveholders feared a slave uprising and increased their commitment to

the cause against Great

Britain, calling for independence. Dunmore fled Virginia in 1776.


With the events of 1775 fresh in their minds, many colonists reached the conclusion

in 1776 that the

time had come to secede from the Empire and declare independence. Over the past ten

years, these

colonists had argued that they deserved the same rights as Englishmen enjoyed in

Great Britain, only to

find themselves relegated to an intolerable subservient status in the Empire. The

groundswell of support

for their cause of independence in 1776 also owed much to the appearance of an

anonymous pamphlet,

first published in January 1776, entitled Common Sense. Thomas Paine, who had

emigrated from England

to Philadelphia in 1774, was the author. Arguably the most radical pamphlet of the

revolutionary era,

Common Sense made a powerful argument for independence.

Paine’s pamphlet rejected the monarchy, calling King George III a “royal brute” and

questioning the right

of an island (England) to rule over America. In this way, Paine helped to channel

colonial discontent

toward the king himself and not, as had been the case, toward the British

Parliament—a bold move

that signaled the desire to create a new political order disavowing monarchy

entirely. He argued for the

creation of an American republic, a state without a king, and extolled the

blessings of republicanism,

a political philosophy that held that elected representatives, not a hereditary

monarch, should govern

states. The vision of an American republic put forward by Paine included the idea

of popular sovereignty:

citizens in the republic would determine who would represent them, and decide other

issues, on the basis

of majority rule. Republicanism also served as a social philosophy guiding the

conduct of the Patriots in

their struggle against the British Empire. It demanded adherence to a code of

virtue, placing the public

good and community above narrow self-interest.

Paine wrote Common Sense (Figure 6.7) in simple, direct language aimed at ordinary

people, not just the

learned elite. The pamphlet proved immensely popular and was soon available in all

thirteen colonies,

where it helped convince many to reject monarchy and the British Empire in favor of

independence and a

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Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783


republican form of government.

Figure 6.7 Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (a) helped convince many colonists of the

need for independence from

Great Britain. Paine, shown here in a portrait by Laurent Dabos (b), was a

political activist and revolutionary best

known for his writings on both the American and French Revolutions.


In the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and agreed to

sever ties with Great

Britain. Virginian Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, with the

support of the Congress,

articulated the justification for liberty in the Declaration of Independence

(Figure 6.8). The Declaration,

written primarily by Jefferson, included a long list of grievances against King

George III and laid out

the foundation of American government as a republic in which the consent of the

governed would be of

paramount importance.

Figure 6.8 The Dunlap Broadsides, one of which is shown here, are considered the

first published copies of the

Declaration of Independence. This one was printed on July 4, 1776.


Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783

The preamble to the Declaration began with a statement of Enlightenment principles

about universal

human rights and values: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are

created equal, that

they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these

are Life, Liberty, and

the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted

among Men, deriving

their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of

Government becomes

destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”

In addition to this statement of

principles, the document served another purpose: Patriot leaders sent copies to

France and Spain in hopes

of winning their support and aid in the contest against Great Britain. They

understood how important

foreign recognition and aid would be to the creation of a new and independent


The Declaration of Independence has since had a global impact, serving as the basis

for many subsequent

movements to gain independence from other colonial powers. It is part of America’s

civil religion, and

thousands of people each year make pilgrimages to see the original document in

Washington, DC.

The Declaration also reveals a fundamental contradiction of the American

Revolution: the conflict between

the existence of slavery and the idea that “all men are created equal.” One-fifth

of the population in 1776

was enslaved, and at the time he drafted the Declaration, Jefferson himself owned

more than one hundred

slaves. Further, the Declaration framed equality as existing only among white men;

women and nonwhites

were entirely left out of a document that referred to native peoples as “merciless

Indian savages” who

indiscriminately killed men, women, and children. Nonetheless, the promise of

equality for all planted the

seeds for future struggles waged by slaves, women, and many others to bring about

its full realization.

Much of American history is the story of the slow realization of the promise of

equality expressed in the

Declaration of Independence.

Click and Explore

Visit Digital History

( to view “The

Female Combatants.” In this 1776 engraving by an

anonymous artist, Great Britain is

depicted on the left as a staid, stern matron,

while America, on the right, is shown as a

half-dressed American Indian. Why do you think

the artist depicted the two opposing

sides this way?

6.2 The Early Years of the Revolution

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

• Explain the British and American strategies of 1776 through 1778

• Identify the key battles of the early years of the Revolution

After the British quit Boston, they slowly adopted a strategy to isolate New

England from the rest of

the colonies and force the insurgents in that region into submission, believing

that doing so would end

the conflict. At first, British forces focused on taking the principal colonial

centers. They began by easily

capturing New York City in 1776. The following year, they took over the American

capital of Philadelphia.

The larger British effort to isolate New England was implemented in 1777. That

effort ultimately failed

when the British surrendered a force of over five thousand to the Americans in the

fall of 1777 at the Battle

of Saratoga.

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Chapter 6 | America’s War for Independence, 1775-1783


The major campaigns over the next several years took place in the middle colonies

of New York, New

Jersey, and Pennsylvania, whose populations were sharply divided between Loyalists

and Patriots.

Revolutionaries faced many hardships as British superiority on the battlefield

became evident and the

difficulty of funding the war caused strains.


After evacuating Boston in March 1776, British forces sailed to Nova Scotia to

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