Modern history

Fighting for Independence

After July 4, 1776, battles between British and colonial troops intensified, and the patriots suffered a series of military defeats that must have made some wonder about the wisdom of undertaking a revolution. It was more than five months after independence was declared before patriots celebrated a military victory against the British. In 1777, however, the tide turned for the Continental Army, although British forces remained formidable. A year later, it was clear that victory would not be easily won and that each side needed support from women on the home front as well as men on the battlefront.

British Troops Gain Early Victories

In the summer of 1776, when General Washington tried to lead his army out of Boston to confront British troops en route to New York City, many soldiers deserted and returned home. They believed that New York men should defend New York. Among the soldiers who remained with Washington, many were landless laborers whose wives and sisters followed the troops as their only means of support. Although Washington deemed these “camp followers” undesirable, the few hundred women provided critical services to ordinary soldiers. Ultimately, Washington arrived in New York with 19,000 men, many of whom were poorly armed and poorly trained and some of whom were coerced into service by local committees of safety.

The ragtag Continental force faced a formidable foe with a powerful navy and a far larger and better-trained army. Throughout the summer, British ships sailed into New York harbor or anchored off the coast of Long Island. General Howe, hoping to overwhelm the colonists, ordered 10,000 troops to march into the city in the weeks immediately after the Declaration of Independence was signed. But the Continental Congress rejected Howe’s offer of peace and a royal pardon.

So Howe prepared to take control of New York City by force and then march up the Hudson valley, isolating New York and New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies. He was aided by some 8,000 Hessian mercenaries (German soldiers being paid to fight for the British) and naval reinforcements under the command ofAdmiral Richard Howe. On August 27, 1776, British forces clashed with a far smaller contingent of Continentals on Long Island. More than 1,500 patriots were killed or wounded in the fierce fighting, diminishing the army’s strength even further.

By November, the British had captured Fort Lee in New Jersey and attacked the Continental Army at Fort Washington, north of New York City. The large community of loyalists in the New York/New Jersey region served as ready hosts for General Howe and his officers, and ordinary redcoats survived by looting the stores, farms, and homes of patriots. Meanwhile Washington led his weary troops and camp followers into Pennsylvania, while the Continental Congress, fearing a British attack on Philadelphia, fled to Baltimore.

Although General Howe might have ended the patriot threat right then by a more aggressive campaign, he was interested primarily in wearing down the Continental Army so that the colonies would plead for peace. Neither he nor Washington engaged in full- scale frontal assaults. Washington did not have the troops or arms to do so, but he also hoped that the British would accept American independence once they saw the enormous effort it would take to defeat the colonies.

The British Burn New York City, 1776 This print by François Xavier Haberman shows several buildings along a New York City street set ablaze by the British troops of General William Howe on September 19, 1776. It also depicts citizens being beaten by redcoats while African slaves engage in looting. The British promised slaves their freedom if they opposed the patriots. Library of Congress

Patriots Prevail in New Jersey

The Continental Army had not gained a single military victory between July 1776, when the colonies declared independence, and December. Fortunately for Washington, Howe followed the European tradition of waiting out the winter months and returning to combat after the spring thaw. This tactic gave the patriots the opportunity to regroup, repair weapons and wagons, and recruit soldiers. Yet Washington was not eager to face the cold and discomfort of the winter with troops discouraged by repeated defeats and retreats.

Camped in eastern Pennsylvania, Washington discovered that General Howe had sent Hessian troops to occupy the city of Trenton, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River. On Christmas Eve, Washington crossed the river with some 2,500 soldiers and attacked Trenton. The Continentals quickly routed the surprised Hessians. Then they marched on Princeton, where they battled three regiments of regular British troops, defeating them on January 3, 1777. The British army retreated from New Jersey, settling back into New York City, and the Continental Congress returned to Philadelphia. By January 1777, it seemed clear to both sides that the conflict would indeed be harder, more costly, and more deadly than anyone had imagined in the spring of 1775.

A Critical Year of Warfare

The British and Continental armies emerged from their winter camps in the spring of 1777. The British forces, including regular army units, American loyalists, Indian allies, Hessians, and naval men-of-war, were concentrated largely in New York City and Canada. The Continental forces, numbering fewer than 5,000 men, were entrenched near Morristown, New Jersey, far from the patriot centers of New England and from the coastal areas controlled by the British army and navy. Although the Continental Congress had returned to Philadelphia, it feared that the British would seek to capture the city and split the United States in two.

General Howe also believed that the key to victory was capturing Philadelphia, and he hoped that success there might lead the patriots to surrender. Washington’s force was too small to defeat Howe’s army, but it delayed his advance on the capital city by attacks along the way. En route, Howe learned that he was still expected to reinforce General John Burgoyne’s soldiers, who were advancing south from Canada. Too late to redirect his efforts, Howe continued to Philadelphia and captured it in September 1777. Meanwhile Burgoyne and his 7,200 troops had regained control of Fort Ticonderoga on July 7. He continued south along the Hudson valley, but by late July his forces stalled as they waited for supplies from Canada and reinforcements from Howe and General Barry St. Leger.

In July, St. Leger had marched east through New York State while Joseph Brant and his sister Molly Brant, a powerful Indian leader in her own right, gathered a force of Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga warriors to support the British forces. But on August 6, they suffered a stunning defeat. At Oriskany, New York, a band of German American farmers led by General Nicholas Herkimer held off the British advance, allowing General Arnold to reach nearby Fort Stanwix with reinforcements. On August 23, the British and Indian troops were forced to retreat to Canada (Map 6.1).

General Howe’s reinforcements never materialized, and Burgoyne now faced a brutal onslaught from patriot militiamen. Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys, Continental soldiers under the command of Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold, and their Oneida allies also poured into the region. In September, patriots defeated the British at Freeman’s Farm, with the British suffering twice the casualties of the Continentals. Fighting intensified in early October, when Burgoyne lost a second battle at Freeman’s Farm. Ten days later, he surrendered his remaining army of 5,800 men to General Gates at nearby Saratoga, New York.

MAP 6.1

The War in the North, 1775-1778 After early battles in Massachusetts, patriots invaded Canada but failed to capture Quebec. The British army captured New York City in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777, but New Jersey remained a battle zone through 1778. Meanwhile General Burgoyne secured Canada for Britain and then headed south, but his forces were defeated by patriots at the crucial Battle of Saratoga.

The Continental Army’s victory in the Battle of Saratoga stunned the British and strengthened the patriots. It undercut the significance of Howe’s victory at Philadelphia and indicated the general’s misunderstanding of the character of the patriot cause and the nature of the war he was fighting. The patriot victory gave hope to General Washington as his troops dug in at Valley Forge for another long winter and to members ofthe Continental Congress who had temporarily retreated to York, Pennsylvania. It also gave Benjamin Franklin greater leverage to convince French officials to support the American cause.

Patriots Gain Critical Assistance

Despite significant victories in the fall of 1777, the following winter proved especially difficult for Continental forces. The quarters at Valley Forge were again marked by bitter cold, poor food, inadequate clothing, and scarce supplies. Discipline deteriorated, and many recent recruits were poorly trained. Critical assistance arrived through the voluntary efforts of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian officer recruited by Benjamin Franklin, who took charge of drilling soldiers. Other officers experienced in European warfare also joined the patriot cause during the winter of 1777—1778: the Marquis de Lafayette of France, Johann Baron de Kalb of Bavaria, and Thaddeus Kosciusko and Casimir Count Pulaski, both of Poland. The Continental Army continued to be plagued by problems of recruitment, discipline, wages, and supplies. But the contributions of Steuben, Lafayette, and other foreign volunteers, along with the leadership of Washington and his officers, sustained the military effort.

Patriots on the home front were also plagued by problems in 1777—1778. Families living in battlefield areas were especially vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of war. When British troops captured Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, a British officer commandeered the house of Elizabeth Drinker, a well-to-do Quaker matron. An angry Drinker reported that the officer moved in with “3 Horses 2 Cows 2 Sheep and 3 Turkeys” along with “3 Servants 2 White Men and one Negro Boy.” Meanwhile women who lived far from the conflict were forced to fend for themselves as soldiers moved wherever the Continental Army took them. The wives of political leaders also faced long years alone while their husbands remained at their posts. To hasten the end, many women formed voluntary associations, like the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, to provide critical resources for the army and thus aid the patriot cause.

While most women worked tirelessly on the home front, some cast their fate with the army. Camp followers continued to provide critical services to the military, including cooking, washing, sewing, and nursing. They suffered along with the troops in the face of scarce supplies and harsh weather and depended like the soldiers on food, clothing, and bedding supplied by female volunteers in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities.

Women with sufficient courage and resources served as spies and couriers for British and Continental forces. Lydia Darragh, a wealthy Philadelphian, eavesdropped on conversations among the British officers who occupied her house and then carried detailed notes to Washington hidden in the folds of her dress. Some women, like Nancy Hart Morgan of Georgia, took more direct action. Morgan protected her backcountry home from half a dozen British soldiers by lulling them into a sense of security at dinner, hiding their guns, and shooting two before neighbors came to hang the rest.

Some patriot women took up arms on the battlefield. A few, such as Margaret Corbin, accompanied their husbands to the front lines and were thrust into battle. When her husband was killed in battle at Fort Washington in November 1776, Corbin took his place loading and firing cannons until the fort fell to the British. In addition, a small number of women, like Deborah Sampson, disguised themselves as men and enlisted as soldiers.

Surviving on the Home Front

Whether black or white, enslaved or free, women and children faced hardship, uncertainty, loneliness, and fear as a result of the war. Even those who did not directly engage enemy troops took on enormous burdens during the conflict. Farm wives had to take on the tasks of plowing or planting in addition to their normal domestic duties. In cities, women worked ceaselessly to find sufficient food, wood, candles, and cloth to maintain themselves and their children. One desperate wife, Mary Donnelly, wrote, “[I was] afraid to open my Eyes on the Daylight [lest] I should hear my infant cry for Bread and not have it in my power to relieve him.”

As the war spread, women watched as Continental and British forces slaughtered cattle and hogs for food, stole corn and other crops or burned them to keep the enemy from obtaining supplies, looted houses and shops, and kidnapped or liberated slaves and servants. Some home invasions turned savage. Both patriot and loyalist papers in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston reported cases of rape.

Despite the desperate circumstances, most women knew they had to act on their own behalf to survive. Faced with merchants who hoarded goods in hopes of making greater profits when prices rose, housewives raided stores and warehouses and took coffee, sugar, and other items they needed. Others learned as much as they could about family finances so that they could submit reports to local officials if their houses, farms, or businesses were damaged or looted. Growing numbers of women banded together to assist one another, to help more impoverished families, and to supply troops badly in need of clothes, food, bandages, and bullets.


• How did the patriot forces fare in 1776? How and why did the tide of war turn in 1777?

• What role did colonial women and foreign men play in the conflict in the early years of the war?

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