While all these plans for independence and the establishment of a confederation were well and good for the Colonists; they all hinged on their defeating the most highly trained and well equipped army in the world. When it was suggested that a Continental Army be raised to fight the British, the obvious choice to lead it was right there in the room with them; George Washington.
Washington was a Virginian, so it appeased the Southern States who were somewhat distanced and detached from the troubles going on in Boston. Washington commanded respect wherever he went so when his name was put forward to lead this Continental Army it was a way of saying that this wasn’t just Boston’s problem to deal with, it was a problem all 13 Colonies must deal with together.
Although an imposing man, Washington was relatively soft-spoken and humble. It is said that when he was asked to lead the Continental Army, he replied by saying the he would accept the command offered him, but that he believed himself to be ill equipped to lead such an army; a sentiment he would repeat upon being chosen as our nation’s first president.
What do we know of the wars long since forgotten? Do we remember the names of those who fought, or do we only remember the names of those who led the men into battle? Unless you know someone who fought during any of our nation’s many wars, you most likely only remember the names of the generals who led them. Can you tell me the name of one soldier/sailor/marine or airman who fought in World War II? Yet I bet you have at least heard the name Patton.
The further back in time one goes, the fewer the names they remember. Most people know that George Washington commanded the Continental Army during our war for independence; but do they know the names of any of the other generals who served under Washington?
How about Nathanial Greene; do you know about him? He was a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly who also ran his family’s foundry. He was a Major General under Washington.
How about Henry Knox; ever hear of him? Knox was a bookstore owner with a keen mind for military history and tactics. It was Knox’s idea to retrieve the cannon at Fort Ticonderoga and return them through the ice and snow to surprise the British armada anchored in Boston Harbor.
Yet although wars are led by generals, they are fought by the soldiers who face off against each other for their respective cause or country. It is they who do the bleeding and dying; most of the time that is; and it is they who are remembered least for their contributions. The politicians may declare war; the generals may lead the men on the battlefield; but it is those who do the fighting that ultimately win or lose wars. Our war for independence was no different; except in this instance it was not begun by politicians declaring war on another nation, it began when the people of a nation stood up against the tyranny of their rulers at Lexington and Concord.
Are you aware that when our nation declared its independence that it was pretty much equally divided into thirds; with one third supporting independence, one third opposing it, and one third not caring one way or the other? Are you aware that out of the one third who supported independence, roughly 3% actively fought to secure it?
Wars were fought much differently back then; they didn’t have the sophisticated weaponry we do today, so soldiers would line up almost toe to toe on the battlefield, level their weapons, and fire point blank at each other. The effective range of the weaponry used by the soldiers of the 18th Century was approximately 50 yards; half a football field away. Of course cannon also came into play as well, but the real fighting was done by men who could stare their enemies in the eye and have the courage to stand within fighting distance of them and face incoming fire and not retreat in fear.
Also, since there were no troop transports or airborne divisions, the soldiers relied on ships to get them relatively close to wear the action was, and they then marched inland to the battles. In the wintertime, the war typically ground to a stop as the opposing armies hunkered down to ride out the inclement weather. Sure there were minor skirmishes in the winter, but the majority of the army rode the winter out; and many died from illness during this period alone.
When Washington assumed command of his ‘army’ he found a ragtag bunch of undisciplined and untrained soldiers; many of whom were already suffering the effects of the pox which was ravishing the countryside at the time. His repeated pleas for assistance and equipment went relatively unanswered by the Congress in Philadelphia. It was not that they did not hear his cries for assistance; it is that they were powerless to compel the States to provide the things Washington needed to supply and lead his army.
This could be one of the reasons why Washington’s aide de camp, Alexander Hamilton, sought a much stronger centralized government years later; his first hand experiences on the battlefield; having to deal with an incompetent and powerless central government that could not equip an army.
The war officially began on April 19, 1775 when the Boston militia formed up and repelled the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord; even before Congress recognized that the war had started without them. The war continued at Bunker Hill while the Congress debated whether or not to declare independence and form an army to fight it.
But it was Bunker Hill that showed the Redcoats that these untrained militiamen were not to be trifled with. During the siege of Boston the British had learned that the militia had occupied certain high ground overlooking their ships and the city itself. On the morning of June 17, the British mounted their attacks upon Bunker and Breeds Hills; attempting to roust the militiamen who occupied them. The first and second waves were repulsed; but the third was successful at securing the high ground; although at quite a cost to the British. The Colonists lost nearly 115 men that day, but the British lost over 236; many of them officers. Afterwards the body of Joseph Warren, (a Colonial Major General who was killed at Bunker Hill), was dug up by the British, desecrated, and its head cut off. General Gage is said to have stated that the loss of Warren was as much a blow to the Colonists as the loss of 500 men.
Although Bunker Hill showed the British that the Colonists were no pushovers, they were not going to give up the fight after the licking they took taking that small plot of ground from the Colonials. After the Colonies had formally declared their independence, Sir William Howe launched a counter-attack and captured New York; leaving American confidence in their chance for success shaken.
Then the Colonial Army achieved victories at Trenton and Princeton, which led to a boost in morale; both in the troops and in the people’s support of the war. But it was a blunder on the part of the British which led to their ultimate surrender at Yorktown. In 1777, under the command of General John Burgoyne, the British army began an assault out of Quebec intended to isolate New England. General Howe was supposed to support this effort, but instead took his army onwards to the seat of power in America; Philadelphia. This led Burgoyne and his men to being soundly defeated at Saratoga; a loss which would lead to the French agreeing to support the Colonies in their quest for independence.
While the war drug on in the North to a relative standstill, the British felt there was enough Loyalist support in the South that they could defeat any Colonial efforts at separation. The British initially captured Savannah, then Loyalist militias suffered a resounding loss at Kettle Creek; proving that they could not win a major battle far removed from British support.
When Horatio Gate’s army suffered a major defeat at Camden, the British, under General Cornwallis, chose in invade North Carolina. However, patriot militia’s were successful in disrupting his efforts and Cornwallis dispatched Loyalists to deal with them. His Loyalist’s were all but destroyed on October 7; leaving Loyalist support hard to come by for the British.
The two armies then played a game of cat and mouse where the British chased Nathaniel Greene’s army all over the countryside while Greene sought to build the strength of his army through volunteers to the cause. By March Greene felt confident enough to engage Cornwallis in open battle. Although he was defeated, he had inflicted such losses to the British that he was forced to retreat; leaving the Carolina’s and Georgia open for Greene to retake.
Cornwallis had learned that Patriot support was passing through Virginia and chose to invade Virginia to disrupt the lines of supply to Greene’s army in the South. Although he was subordinate to General Clinton, Cornwallis chose not to inform him of his decision to invade Virginia.
It was at this time that the French had come to the conclusion that a closer working relationship with the Colonists was needed if they were to achieve victory; so Washington and Comte de Rochambeau discussed their options over where to assault the British. Washington preferred to strike New York, while Rochambeau favored Virginia.
Meanwhile General Cornwallis chose to dig in at Yorktown and await the Royal Navy for support. When that support did arrive, it was no match for the French fleet, and was soundly defeated; cutting Cornwallis off from any further support.
On September 28 the Franco/American forces began the assault upon Yorktown. Cornwallis had prematurely abandoned all his outer defenses, which probably hastened his defeat. After nearly a month of constant bombardment and assault, Cornwallis and his aides came to the realization that they had no chance for success, and Cornwallis sent an aid to surrender. Ironically, on the same day Cornwallis was giving up, General Clinton was dispatching 6,000 reinforcements to build up Cornwallis’s army.
The surrender of General Cornwallis was pretty much the end of the war on the part of the British. Although they still had nearly 30,000 soldiers on U.S. soil, General Clinton had been replaced by Guy Carlton, who was under orders to suspend all offensive operations.
All that needed doing now was the establishment of peace and America taking its place in the world as a sovereign and independent nation; and this is as good a point as any to take a break. See you soon…