The War of the Revolution 1775 to 1783
On the outbreak of the war the American colonies were, from North to South; Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut (making up New England), New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The principal cities were Boston in Massachusetts, New York, Philadelphia, the colonial capital of Pennsylvania, and Charleston, the capital of South Carolina.
To the North of the colonies lay the British province of Canada, with its mainly French speaking population, and to the West the hinterland of the American landmass.
The American colonies differed widely. The New England colonies had been established and settled largely by English Presbyterians and comprised small close knit farming communities, with fishing and trading centres along the coast. The populations were inward looking and intolerant of outsiders.
Boston was a busy port, reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the
English speaking world.
New York contained a polyglot population of Dutch, Swedes and English.
Upstate New York contained large estates. The Hudson River, a main
communications artery, was the centre of considerable trading
activity. The large state area contained a considerable Indian
presence from the Iroquois Six Nations confederation, particularly
Pennsylvania, established by the Quaker Penn family,
had been hamstrung in the early part of the 18th Century by the
stranglehold the Quakers maintained on government. The
population, particularly in the West of the colony, was largely
German and Scotch-Irish with little commitment to the British
Crown. The colony was a prosperous community of small farmers.
In the East lay Philadelphia, the largest city in the American
colonies and the first capital of the United States.
Map of the American Colonies at the outbreak of war in 1775
Virginia and the southern colonies were different in character.
Tobacco growing along the ‘Tideway’ coastline was the backbone of
the Virginian economy. Ships from England collected the tobacco and
delivered in exchange goods that enabled the most successful
planters to maintain the lavish lifestyle of English country
gentlemen. More than fifty per cent of the colony’s population
comprised African slaves. In the remote western regions of the
colony colonists cut farmsteads from the forests and maintained a
precarious existence in the face of resistance from the native
The Carolinas and Georgia, the most recently established colonies,
were similar in character and outlook to Virginia.
The Minutemen of 1776
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
The relationship between the American colonies and the British Crown
was complex and turbulent. In each colony the Royal Governor had
historically been at odds with the Assembly of elected leading
colonials, usually over taxation. Pennsylvania, where the Penn
family exempted themselves from financial contribution to the
running of the colony, is a good illustration of the almost
unworkable system that had grown up.
The main element that kept the colonies and the British Crown in
uneasy alliance was the threat from France with its powerful base
along the St Lawrence seaway in Canada and along the western borders
of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The long and agonising French and Indian War between 1755 and 1762 saw
the French forced out of Canada, with Britain assuming government of
the French population, and the American colonies released from the
threat of French invasion and dominance.
That war, fought in Europe, India and the West Indies, left Britain
with considerable debt. The British government considered the
American colonies should contribute to the reduction of that debt
and many of the measures that brought about the Revolutionary War
were to that end.
Following the war a substantial British garrison remained in America.
18th Century armies were not easy guests, particularly with their
practices of enforced and fraudulent recruitment. The redcoats
became as unpopular in the towns and villages of New England as they
were in ‘Old’ England. The relationship between the royal troops and
their provincial colleagues in the war against the French had been
far from easy. The royal officers tended to be contemptuous of the
professionalism of the provincials and the colonies resented the
loss of life in battles like Ticonderoga brought about by the
incompetence of Royal officers. A dispute that simmered throughout
the French and Indian War arose from the ranking of provincial
officers beneath royal officers of the same grade. George Washington
had found this particularly galling.
The City of Philadelphia
General Braddock’s disastrous defeat in July 1755 in Western
Pennsylvania struck a major blow to the prestige of the British
Crown. The withdrawal of Colonel Dunbar with the survivors of
Braddock’s regular troops to Philadelphia, leaving Pennsylvania,
Maryland, Virginia and even Western New York to be ravaged by Indian
raiding parties, encouraged by the French, led many in those
colonies to question the worth of the link with Britain and to look
to their own colonial governments to fill the vacuum left by the
Braddock’s campaign provides a looming portent for the future of the
colonies. Many of the participants went on to take major parts in
the Revolutionary War: George Washington, Gage, Gates, Mercer, Lee
and several others.
Signing the oath of loyalty
In 1775 Major General Gage (a veteran of Braddock’s campaign) was the
Commander-in-Chief in Boston. He had 11 battalions of foot in
Boston, 1 in New York and 6 others spread through North America;
7,000 men in all.
Gage knew that war was coming. Magistrates loyal to the British Crown
were displaced in many parts of New England. In February 1775, a
Provincial Congress met in Cambridge and took over the government of
Massachusetts, other than Boston itself. The colonial militia was
arming and drilling. Gage called for substantial re-enforcements
The British army of the time was not an efficient institution. Since
the French and Indian War, Parliament had reduced the number of
regiments. Recruiting was always a problem, particularly for the
regiments in America. There was no formal military education for
officers and efficiency varied widely between regiments. In peace
time there was little training and in a garrison like Boston, where
the surrounding countryside was hostile, the opportunities for field
days, even if the officers had been inclined to conduct them, were
The hanging of the British officer,
for negotiating the treachery of Benedict Arnold
If the British infantry had been moderately competent and led with a
modicum of professionalism, the attack on the position at Breed’s
Hill, in the battle of Bunker Hill, would have been successful
within minutes. The illustration of the battle showing superbly
turned out redcoats in a serried rank is highly misleading. The
failure of the British artillery to take the correct calibre of
ammunition into the battle is a better indicator of the army’s
The competence of both sides improved out of recognition as the war
progressed. The crossing of the Delaware in mid-winter at Trenton by
the American troops, many without shoes, and the resistance of the
40th Foot in Chew’s House at Germantown are examples of inspiring
conduct in battle on each side.
Benedict Arnold as a brigadier in the
British Army after he changed sides.
The war began with the attempt by Gage to seize the armaments held by
Congress at Concord and the exchange of shots at Lexington.
Following the success of the running fight that saw the British
hurrying back to Boston, the New England militia invested the city,
building entrenchments along the west bank of the bay.
In June 1775 American forces occupied Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown
peninsular opposite Boston and built a redoubt. On 17th June 1775
the British landed and after the bloody battle of Bunker Hill drove
the rebels back to the mainland.
The siege of Boston continued, with the British situation
deteriorating, until 17th March 1776 when the force, now commanded
by General Howe, evacuated Boston and sailed for Halifax in Nova
Scotia, leaving Boston to the American Congressional Army commanded
by General George Washington.
Attempts had been made to put the British Army on some sort of war
footing, but with limited success. The only new regiment raised was
Fraser’s 71st Highlanders, comprising two battalions. Five existing
regiments of foot were sent to America and five more with the 16th
Light Dragoons were preparing to embark.
British recruiting sergeant at work
While the siege of Boston was in progress in 1775, Brigadier
Montgomery, an inspiring officer with service in the British Army,
with the mercurial Brigadier Benedict Arnold led an audacious and
nearly successful American attack on Canada. Only the vigour and
resourcefulness of the Governor, Guy Carleton, ensured that the
assaults on Quebec on the night of New Year’s Eve 1775 were
repelled, with the death of Montgomery.
In May 1776 Major General Lord Cornwallis arrived off Charleston and
with Major General Clinton attempted to take the capital of South
Carolina, but without success. In July 1776 the British force sailed
north, rejoining Howe on Staten Island, off New York.
In August 1776 Howe began his inexorable advance against the
Americans, fighting the battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights,
White Plains and capturing Fort Washington and Fort Lee. General
Washington fell back from position to position until by the end of
the year he lay to the West of the Delaware River. The Americans
were at a low ebb, the confidence of the troops severely shaken.
There was however an underlying dynamic to the war. Each British
victory could only, at best, put off the inevitable. A single
American triumph and sometimes even a failure reversed the impact of
a string of British successes.
General Israel Putnam called from his plough to the service of his
country: an image reminiscent of the incident in classical history;
Cincinnatus summoned from his ploughing to be Dictator of Rome,
against the threat from the Aequians.
Such a triumph was Trenton on 25th December 1776 when General
Washington launched a surprise attack across the Delaware and
captured a substantial Hessian force under Colonel Rahl. At the news
of Rahl’s defeat and death General Lord Cornwallis turned back from
his return to England to cope with the reverse. The American war
effort was galvanised.
In 1777 the British Government approved General Howe’s plan for an
attack on Philadelphia. In addition Lord Germaine, the British
minister directing the war, ordered Major General Burgoyne to lead
an attack from Canada down the Crown Point-Ticonderoga route to the
Hudson and into New York. At a stroke Germaine ensured that the
British achieved the feat that had eluded George Washington; the
mass mobilisation of the New England militia.
Burgoyne, with the assistance of able officers such as Brigadier Simon
Fraser and Colonel St Leger, in August 1777 moved south against the
increasing quagmire of local resistance until, running out of
supplies, he was forced to surrender at the battle of Saratoga on
17th October 1777.
The American commander was Major General Horatio Gates, another
veteran of Braddock’s, but the true inspiration for the American
success was Benedict Arnold.
Major General Steuben training the American Regiments
of Foot at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777/1778
Meanwhile further south General Howe had landed at Wilmington in
August 1777 and advanced against General Washington. Following the
battle of Brandywine Creek on 11th September 1777 the British took
Philadelphia and Washington settled in for the winter in Valley
Forge to the North of the city, making his last effort of the year
in the attack on Germantown.
It was in Philadelphia that the British received the news of the
capture of Burgoyne’s army. Trenton caused the first crack. Saratoga
began the splintering. France, licking her wounds after her
territorial losses in the Seven Years War, and Spain, keen to renew
the attempt to recover Gibraltar, actively planned to join the war
against Britain. The creaking British war machine was incapable of
replacing the losses from Burgoyne’s capitulation.
In March 1778 Major General Clinton succeeded Howe as British
commander in America. On 8th July 1778 the French Toulon Fleet
arrived off the Delaware River.
By the end of 1778 Clinton held New York, watched by General
Washington from the main land, neither side feeling sufficiently
strong to take the offensive. During the course of the year heavy
fighting had taken place in Georgia, leaving the British with the
advantage. But the war was not to be decided in the far south.
A British Officer
In the early months of 1780 General Cornwallis arrived before
Charleston to begin the reconquest of South Carolina. This began the
terrible fighting that took place through 1780 and 1781, with
battles at Camden, King’s Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse,
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton establishing his reputation in
the ruthless struggle.
In the North, in November 1780, Benedict Arnold changed sides,
escaping to the British lines, but leaving Clinton’s adjutant, Major
André, in American hands to be hanged as a spy.
In February 1781 Cornwallis moved into North Carolina, shadowed by
Major General Nathaniel Greene. In May 1781 Clinton moved into
Virginia. The British strategy had lost all apparent direction.
By July 1781 Cornwallis was in Yorktown, which in August he began to
fortify. American and French forces force marched to confront him,
General Washington marching south from New York. The French fleet
gathered off the York River. The British fleet under Admiral Graves
had sailed further south.
On 19th October 1781 Cornwallis capitulated to General Washington and
the French commander, de Rochambeau. The war was over and the
American colonies had won their independence.
King George III
Steuben’s retraining of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge, Winter
Throughout the Revolutionary War Congress was plagued by adventurers
from Europe, who arrived with written introductions from the
American representatives in Paris, fantastic claims of prior rank
and experience and demands for senior appointments in the American
Army. A few were worthy of the demands they made.
One was Steuben. He claimed to have had high command in the Prussian
Army. It seems more likely he had served in a non-commissioned rank
and risen to be a junior officer during the Seven Years War.
Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 speaking only
German and French. General Washington invited Steuben to devise a
training system for the American regiments of foot. The essence of
military manoeuvre was foot drill and weapon handling, both arts at
which the Prussian service excelled.
The American Army was sorely in need of instruction in battle drill.
Many units could only move about in single file. A regiment of 500
men in single file takes up 1,500 yards of road or more. A similar
regiment in column of fours takes up 400 yards.
In the course of the Seven Years War in Europe the Prussian Army had
suffered so many casualties that the training of new recruits had
become an essential skill for all junior officers, even when on
operations. There could be no better trainer of soldiers than an
experienced and competent Prussian officer.
It is part of the patriotic mythology of the American Revolution that
the rebels were fighting the best army in Europe in the British
Army. This was not the case. The British Army was decades behind the
Prussian Army in the education of its officers and the training of
its soldiers. In the smarter British regiments excessive military
zeal was considered ungentlemanly. So far as possible in such
regiments duty matters were left to the sergeants and corporals. The
American Army had inherited much of the British attitude. Steuben
changed this. In the Prussian tradition Steuben required the
officers to drill the soldiers. In this way the officers learned
their military trade, while the companies and regiments welded into
effective military units.
Steuben began his new appointment by forming a demonstration battalion
with men taken from all the regiments in the army. Steuben taught
them battle drill and they went away and taught their regiments.
Whenever Steuben held a parade other soldiers gathered to watch.
Steuben insisted that every soldier be issued with a standard musket
and bayonet. He taught them to load and fire in battle conditions
and to use the bayonet as an effective offensive weapon. Steuben
reduced his instructions to a set of written orders. These orders
were translated into English and written out in longhand so that
every regiment had a copy.
Steuben appreciated the material he had to work with. He commented
that no European army would have held together in the conditions of
destitution at Valley Forge. His training sessions were punctuated
with outbursts of swearing in German at some mistake followed by
loud laughter on the part of everyone. Steuben appreciated that his
instructions did not have to be enforced with the whip as in a
Steuben had only a few months to complete his work. In June 1778
Clinton began his withdrawal from Philadelphia and Washington
marched out to intercept him, with a transformed army. The results
were seen in the hard fighting at the Battle of Monmouth.
The British Army in the Revolutionary War:
The British army in North America suffered from a number of
incapacitating weaknesses: it’s small size, the lack of a workable
recruitment system once the New England hinterland was closed to it,
the professional incapacity of many of its officers, the lack of
proper training, the lack of an organised supply system and the
inadequate number of cavalry and artillery.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War the British Regular Army
comprised 2 Troops of Horse Guards, 5 Regiments of Horse, 3
Regiments of Dragoon Guards, 14 Regiments of Dragoons, 3 Regiments
of Light Dragoons, 3 Regiments of Foot Guards and 70 Regiments of
Foot. The Royal Artillery was a separate institution formed into
field companies in time of war.
The Foot Guards at St James's in London
The Regiment was the permanent unit structure, commanded by its
colonel with two further field officers; a lieutenant colonel and a
major. By the outbreak of the Revolutionary War regiments were
commanded in the field by the lieutenant colonel.
The English establishment for a mounted regiment was 6 or 8 troops,
each comprising a captain, a lieutenant, a cornet, 3 corporals, a
trumpeter and some 30 private men. A dragoon troop comprised an
additional 3 sergeants and a drummer rather than a trumpeter.
The English establishment for an infantry regiment was 10 companies:
the two flank companies, grenadier and light, and 8 line companies
each comprising a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign, 3 sergeants, 3
corporals, 3 drummers and 70 to 100 private soldiers. At full war
strength a regiment varied from 700 to 1,000 men.
British Grenadier Attack
Regiments, other than the Horse and Foot Guards, moved from place to
place, billeted on civilian households while in Britain and Ireland
or in barracks when in garrison in Gibraltar or Minorca. A few
regiments were posted to India.
The Army used the Irish Establishment to store regiments in cadre form
with greatly reduced establishments.
Each regiment conducted its own recruiting, sending out parties from
its quarters. When a regiment was required to move overseas its
manpower would be made up with drafts of men from other regiments.
While the regiment was overseas, recruiting parties were sent back
Private soldiers in regiments of horse and dragoons were armed with a
sword and a musket. Infantry soldiers were armed with a musket and a
bayonet. The musket was muzzle loading with a flintlock mechanism at
the butt end of the barrel. The soldier’s normal battle supply was
24 cartridges. Each cartridge contained a single discharge of gun
powder and a spherical lead ball. When loading the soldier ripped
open the paper cartridge with his teeth and poured a small quantity
of powder into the firing pan. He poured the remainder of the charge
into the muzzle of the musket followed by the cartridge paper as a
wad and poked the charge to the bottom of the barrel with the ramrod
carried in a cradle under the musket barrel. The soldier then put
the musket ball into the barrel so that it rolled, or he pushed it
with the ramrod, to the bottom on top of the charge of gunpowder.
The soldier cocked the flintlock mechanism, aimed the weapon and
pulled the trigger. This caused the flintlock to strike, lighting
the powder in the firing pan which in turn ignited the charge in the
barrel via a small hole in the side of the barrel. The musket
discharged the ball, with a flash, a considerable quantity of smoke
and a roar.
A well trained soldier could make 2 or 3 discharges in a minute.
A major feature of every battle of the period was the pall of gun
powder smoke generated by the cannon and musket fire. As the battle
progressed the weapons became befouled and increasingly difficult to
load and fire efficiently.
In the charge the cavalrymen relied upon their swords and the
infantrymen on their bayonets.
During the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War) 1755 to 1762
the Regiments fighting the French in Germany were formed into
brigades with staff and supply structures. With the end of the war
the brigades were dismantled.
The colonel was paid a sum to maintain his regiment in all respects
except weapons which were issued centrally. Soldiers and officers
were expected to feed themselves from their pay, forming messes to
pool their resources in buying and cooking food. A similar system
applied in all European Armies. When an army on campaign pitched
camp, the locals would gather and sell their produce to the
soldiers. A thriving market was a feature of every military camp.
A British officer of the 17th Foot
This system did not work in North America. Large areas of the country
were sparsely populated and it was unrealistic to rely on local
supply. General Braddock on arriving at Fort Cumberland in Western
Maryland in April 1755 was incensed to find there was no market. He
assumed his men were intercepting the country folk and preventing
them from coming into the camp. He found it hard to grasp that there
were no country folk in the hundreds of miles of forest inhabited
only by Indians and a few enterprising colonists. Every new British
commander had to learn the same lesson. Burgoyne’s failure to do so,
in spite of his experience in North American, led in part to his
defeat and surrender at Saratoga in October 1777.
On the outbreak of the Revolutionary War most of the British troops
in the American colonies were billeted in Boston. There was no
cavalry, few guns and no field supply system.
The British Army possessed no standard training system for officers or
soldiers. The regiments varied greatly in competence and
reliability, depending on the professional commitment of their
officers, particularly the lieutenant colonel and major.
Several infantry regiments held high reputations in the Revolutionary
War; the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, the 33rd Regiment and on their
arrival in America the composite battalions of Foot Guards (formed
from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Foot Guards).
During the Revolutionary War the British Army adopted the Seven Years
War practice of forming light and grenadier companies into single
regiments, the companies spending much of the time away from their
The British 3rd Foot Guards
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
Two cavalry regiments joined the British army in America in the early
stages of the war, the 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons and the 17th
Light Dragoons. The light dragoon regiments were raised during the
Seven Year War and particularly distinguished themselves in the
fighting against the French in Germany (see Emsdorf for the 15th)
and in Portugal and Spain. Light dragoons were “cutting edge”
military units for the British Army and attracted the best and most
professional cavalry officers. Both General Burgoyne and Lieutenant
Colonel Banastre Tarleton were light dragoon officers.
The shortage of cavalry in the Revolutionary War was a major drawback
for the British. A strong cavalry presence at battles like Long
Island and Brandywine could have enabled the British to encircle the
Americans and prevent their retreat. It is possible that a strong
cavalry force would have captured Washington’s army entirely during
the march south through New Jersey in 1776.
Grenadiers of the Royal Fusiliers in battles
The pervasive problem for all the British regiments was recruitment.
Regiments lived on the road taking everything with them. There was
no depot system. Consequently the regiments posted across the
Atlantic to America had no easy way to recruit replacements for
casualties. There was a certain amount of recruitment in the
colonies, but many loyalists prepared to fight for the British Crown
preferred to join locally recruited units rather than commit
themselves to a lifetime of military service in the Royal Regiments.
Regiments suffered a haemorrhage of desertion, many soldiers changing
sides often for promotion or even a commission in the American
Continental Army. The regiments that remained in America for the
duration of the war dwindled away, although boosted at times by the
arrival of drafts from regiments based in Britain.
In spite of these handicaps several of the British regiments showed
themselves to be formidable fighting units. The American War
provided the British Army with a wealth of experience that bore
fruit in the Napoleonic Wars with the formation of the light
infantry and rifle regiments that performed so well in Portugal and
Spain. The 60th Rifles were, of course, the Old Royal American
Regiment that provided the backbone for the British Armies in the
French and Indian War.
For the British establishment and people the American Revolutionary
War was a humiliating disgrace to be forgotten as quickly as
possible. The soldiers who fought hard for 6 years to maintain the
British Crown returned home to find themselves ignored. Victories
such as Long Island and Brandywine do not appear as battle honours
on any regimental colours.