The American Revolution
At the start of the American Revolution, the British Army was the strongest army in the world. You will read how the Americans were able to defeat the powerful British Army.
The Second Continental Congress
Soon after the battles of Lexington & Concord, delegates from all 13 colonies held the Second Continental Congress. The Congress began in May 1775 in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress decided to form an army with soldiers from all of the colonies. All the delegates agreed that George Washington should be the commander in chief of the new Continental Army. Washington looked ready for the difficult job. The Continental Congress also decided to send Benjamin Franklin to France to ask for French help.
While American delegates were working in the Continental Congress, American soldiers had captured British cannons and supplies at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. In June 1775 American troops moved to Breeds Hill and Bunker Hill, two hills near Boston. On these hills American and British troops fought the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans lost the battle but more than a thousand British soldiers died at Bunker Hill.
Back at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the delegates sent a letter to King George called the Olive Branch Petition. It said the colonists wanted peace, and they wanted to be ruled by Great Britain. But the colonists also wanted to have the same rights as the British citizens.
A few delegates, one being Patrick Henry, were ready for the colonies to break away from Great Britain and become an independent nation. In one of his famous speeches, Patrick Henry said, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” However, most delegates still wanted the colonies to be ruled by Great Britain.
Those feelings changed at the end of 1775. King George refused to read the Olive Branch Petition. Instead British ships were sent to blockade American ports.
In January 1776 Thomas Paine convinced many Americans that they should be a free nation. Paine had come to live in America from England. He wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense,” which said the colonies should break all ties with Great Britain. Many people in the colonies agreed with “Common Sense”.
Not all colonists agreed with Thomas Paine. About one-third of the colonists wanted to remain part of the British Empire. These colonists were called Loyalists because they remained loyal to King George. Many loyalists moved to England and Canada during the American Revolution, but thousands stayed and fought the British. About one-third of the colonists wanted to be neutral and not fight for either side. One-third of the colonists wanted independence; they were called Patriots.
The Declaration of Independence
In June 1776 the delegates at the Congress decided to tell the world that the colonies were an independent nation. They decided to explain their reasons in a paper called the Declaration of Independence. A committee was given the job of writing the Declaration. They asked Thomas Jefferson, a young delegate from Virginia, to do most of the writing.
Thomas Jefferson used ideas from the Enlightenment when he wrote the Declaration. The Enlightenment was a period during the 1600s and 1700s when great thinkers wrote new ideas about the government. John Locke was one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. He believed that God gave rights that belong to all people and cannot be taken away. Locke also believed that people have the right to have a revolution against their government if the government does not protect the rights of the people.
The Declaration of Independence explained that “all men are created equal,” and that God gave all people unalienable rights. These rights, which cannot be taken away, are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson used Locke’s ideas when he wrote in the Declaration that people can change their government if it tries to take away the rights of the colonists. The Declaration ended by saying the 13 colonies were “free and independent states.” Soon Americans began to call their free nation the United States of America.
Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” at a time when one fifth of the people in the colonies were slaves. Women did not have the right to vote in any of the colonies. Jefferson wanted the Declaration to include sentences that spoke out against slavery. But when delegates from the Southern colonies refused to sign the Declaration, those sentences about slavery were removed. All people were not treated equally in America in 1776, but the Declaration set high goals for equal treatment in the future.
On July 4, 1776 the delegates signed and adopted the Declaration of Independence. It took great courage to say the colonies were a free nation. To King George all of the signers were traitors. If Americans lost their fight to be free, all of the signers would be punished with death.
George Washington Becomes Commander in Chief
In 1776 George Washington went to Boston to take charge of the Continental Army. Washington faced many problems. The Continental Congress could not collect taxes, so there was little money to pay for an army. The soldiers had no uniforms, and they had to buy their own guns. Often the army did not have enough food.
Washington became a hero as commander in chief. He taught the soldiers to work together as an army. Although Washington lost more battles than he won, he refused to give up. He knew when to retreat and when to move to another place. Then he army could fight again.
Comparing the American and British Armies
In 1776 the British were sure they would win the war. They had the strongest army in the world, and they had a large, powerful navy. The Americans lacked supplies, but they knew how to fight in forests and on the frontier. The British soldiers and their leaders did not.
Since Great Britain ruled many colonies around the world, the British Army had soldiers in many far-off places. The British did not have enough soldiers to fight in America so they hired Hessian soldiers from Germany. The Hessians were paid to fight, and they really did not care which side won. The American soldiers believed in the cause for which they were fighting.
The Early Years of the War
Soon after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Americans fought the British in New York. When Washington lost the Battle of Long Island, he retreated to Manhattan. Washington then escaped with his army to New Jersey. Great Britain had won control of New York City and Long Island.
Nathan Hale was a brave American spy at the Battle of Long Island. He was caught by the British and hanged. Just before he died, Hale said, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Washington had two victories at the end of 1776. The first victory was the surprise attack in Trenton after crossing the icy Delaware River. Then the Americans went to nearby Princeton where they won another small battle. These two victories encouraged the American soldiers to continue fighting.
In September 1777 the British captured Philadelphia. But a few weeks later, in October, Americans won a very important victory in Saratoga, NY. The Americans captured almost 6000 British prisoners. The Battle of Saratoga became the turning point in the war. It proved that the Americans were strong enough to defeat the British. So France decided to send soldiers, ships, and supplies to help the new nation. France’s goal was to defeat its old enemy, Great Britain.
Marquis de Lafayette became a French hero during the American Revolution. In 1777 he used his own money to buy a ship, and then he sailed to America with French soldiers. Lafayette fought alongside the Americans until the last battle ended.
The War after the Battle of Saratoga
After the Battle of Saratoga, Washington led his army to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. There they spent a long, cold winter. Morale was so low that many soldiers left the army to return home. There was not enough food or clothing. Thousands of soldiers wrapped rags around their feet because they did not have shoes to wear. The men who stayed at Valley Forge that winter became better soldiers, thanks to the work of German General Friedrich von Steuben. Von Steuben drilled the soldiers on how to use weapons, and he taught them the best ways to fight.
After the winter at Valley Forge, more fighting took place in the South and in the West. The British won many battles in the South, but it cost them many lives. In the West, Americans had a victory at Vincennes in the Ohio Valley.
In 1779 Spain started to help the American Army. Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, sent gun powder, food, medicine, and money to the American army. He led a Spanish army that captured British forts and cities along the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana to Florida.
One of the best American generals, Benedict Arnold, became a traitor. He wanted to surrender the American fort at West Point, NY, to the British. When Americans learned that Arnold was a traitor, they tried to capture him. But Arnold escaped and became a general in the British army.
By 1781 General Cornwallis, the leader of the British Army, was losing the war in the South. From August until October, Americans fought Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. With the help of the French Army and Navy, the British Army was trapped. On October, 19, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. Americans had won their independence!
In 1783 the Americans and the British signed the Treaty of Paris. In this peace treaty, Great Britain recognized the United States as an independent nation. Although Great Britain still ruled Canada, the United States ruled all land to the east of the Mississippi River.
Who Fought in the American Revolution?
Many kinds of people fought in the war. Most Indians fought for the British. They hoped that the British would stop Americans from settling on Indian lands. Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader, helped the British win the Battle of Long Island.
About five thousand African Americans fought for American freedom during the war. Free African Americans and slaves were in the American Army. They fought in every important battle. Peter Salem, a Minuteman, fought the British at Lexington. Later, Salem shot a British commander in the Battle of Bunker Hill. James Armistead, an African American slave, served as a spy for Lafayette. He became a free man after the war.
Large numbers of Irish Americans fought for freedom. Many of these soldiers became generals in the Continental Army.
Jewish Americans fought for American freedom. David Emmanuel became a hero in Georgia. Haym Salomon, a spy for the American Army, was arrested twice by the British. Both times he escaped. He also raised money for the Continental Army.
Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Polish engineer, became good friends with George Washington. Kosciusko’s work during the Battle of Saratoga helped Americans win this important battle.
Women were important during the American Revolution, although they were not allowed to be soldiers. While men were fighting, women ran farms and businesses. They served as cooks, nurses, and doctors for the army. Some women worked as spies. George Washington’s wife, Martha, spent each winter of the war with the army. She nursed soldiers who were hurt and sewed up the holes in their clothes. Deborah Sampson fought as a soldier. Sampson disguised herself as a man, wore an army uniform, and fought in the Battle of Yorktown.
Americans were proud that they had worked together to win their independence. Early in the war, the Declaration of Independence had said Americans wanted a government that would serve the people. Next, we will learn how Americans planned a new government that would protect their rights and freedoms.
Review & Apply
The Second Continental Congress first met in May 1775. It created a Continental Army and made George Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army.
When the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776, Americans announced their independence from Great Britain.
The Battle of Saratoga was considered the turning point of the American Revolution because after this American victory, France began to help the Continental Army.
The Americans won the American Revolution after the British were defeated at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
Biography Cards: Complete the following by explaining how each person helped the United States win independence.
Marquis de Lafayette
Making Predictions: Read the paragraph below about the end of the American Revolution. Then check two sentences that predict what will happen after the war.
The American army was defeated in many battles during the American Revolution, but George Washington continued to lead the fight for independence. After seven long years of war, the American army defeated the British at Yorktown. The 13 colonies became one free and independent nation.
__ 1. The United States would develop a plan for a new government.
__ 2. Most Americans would want to stay part of Great Britain.
__ 3. The new nation would give some land back to Great Britain.
__ 4. Americans would choose a leader for their nation.
5. What do you predict will happen after the American Revolution?