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History

From Lexington and Concord to Yorktown

This outline covers the fighting during the American Revolution from Lexington and Concord to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. The victory of the American colonists is an extraordinary story of a small group of colonials challenging and defeating the most powerful empire in the world. This victory was made possible by the larger problems the British confronted in mobilizing for war and by the exceptional leadership among the rebellious colonials, in particular, the leadership of George Washington. We look at the northern campaign in 1776–1779, with the initial setbacks and the great turning point at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. We then look briefly at the war in the West, before turning to the successful campaign in the South, ending in victory at Yorktown.

The American Revolution was a truly pivotal moment in the history of the Americas and the world.

A. Many historians have pointed out that the American Revolution was America’s first civil war.

    1. The rebels (known as Whigs) had to rally to defeat not only the British troops but also their brothers and neighbors who remained loyal to the British Crown.
    2. Much like the Civil War of the mid-19th century, the battles would devastate the homes and families of the Americans and would degenerate into a war without restraint or pity.

B. On a larger scale, the successful rebellion of these seemingly small and insignificant colonies on the fringe of Britain’s global empire would become a beacon for other rebellions over the next 200 years.

    1. This was, after all, the first successful colonial rebellion in the Americas and in the Atlantic world.
    2. The Declaration of Independence would become a widely imitated model for rebellions in locations as far-flung as early 19th-century Greece to mid-20th-century Vietnam.

The war for independence lasted eight years and became a crucial battleground for the European powers—England, France, and Spain.

A. In the first stage of the war, from 1775 to 1777, the colonists managed to hold off an invading British army, build an army, and begin to win some important victories.

    1. As schoolchildren have learned for generations, the opening salvos in the war came at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, when American militiamen attacked British troops in search of weapons in Boston and the surrounding area.
    2. The intensity of the fighting increased when Massachusetts troops killed or wounded more than a thousand British troops at Bunker Hill overlooking Boston Harbor.

B. While the military struggle took shape in 1775 and 1776, the political battle provided the powerful and influential ideological rationale for the revolution.

    1. The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in May 1775 and became the deliberative body that would draw up the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.
    2. In the midst of these tumultuous events, an extraordinary pamphlet, “Common Sense,” appeared in January 1776 that crystallized the American anger at the British and eloquently and clearly made the case for independence.
    3. Largely written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration is one of the most powerful and influential documents in American history and beyond.
    4. The Articles of Confederation quite literally created the “United States of America.”

C. In one of the pivotal decisions in U.S. history, the Continental Congress named George Washington commander of the Continental Army.

    1. When the British moved their center of operations from Boston to New York in 1776, Washington engaged in delaying tactics and guerrilla warfare while building up his army.
    2. The defeat of the British troops under General Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777 shocked the British and turned the tide in the war.

D. From 1778 to 1781, the revolution was drawn into the large struggle of imperial powers in the Americas.

    1. After Saratoga, the French and Spanish became more actively involved on the side of the rebels.
    2. The British shifted their attention southward, anxious to ensure control of the southern colonies and protect their possessions in the West Indies.
    3. Guerrilla warfare and defeats in open battle frustrated the British commander General Cornwallis; he moved his operations from South Carolina to Virginia in early 1781.
    4. When a French and American army under Washington and Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781 and a French fleet cut off his escape, he surrendered, effectively ending the war.

In many ways, the diplomatic victory at the end of the war was as stunning as the military success.

A. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay went to Europe to negotiate the peace treaty.

    1. Disregarding their instructions, they chose to negotiate directly with the British without consulting the French.
    2. After striking an extraordinary set of terms with the British, the negotiators then persuaded the French and Spanish to go along.

B. The nation that emerged out of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 was immense.

    1. It extended from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River and from Georgia to roughly the current boundaries with Canada.
    2. The French took control of lands west of the Mississippi, and the Spanish regained control of east and west Florida.
    3. The United States of America became the first nation-state in the Americas.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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Human, All Too Human.

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