Modern history

Winning the War and the Peace

From 1778 to 1781, the battlefront in the Revolution moved south and west. As conflicts with Britain and its Indian allies intensified along the western frontier, British troops reinforced by African American fugitives fought patriots in the Carolinas and Georgia. In the final years of the war, the patriots’ ability to achieve victory rested on a combination of superb strategy, alliances with France and Spain, and the continued material support of affluent men and women. However, even after Britain’s surrender in October 1781, the war dragged on while peace terms were negotiated. The celebrations of victory following the signing of a peace treaty were tempered by protests among Continental soldiers demanding back pay and by the realization of the new nation’s looming problems.

Fighting in the West

While the congress debated the fate of western land claims, battles continued in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. British commanders at Fort Michilimackinac on Lake Huron recruited Sioux, Chippewa, and Sauk warriors to attack Spanish forces along the Mississippi, while soldiers at Fort Detroit armed Ottawa, Fox, and Miami warriors to assault American settlers flooding into the Ohio River valley. British forces from Fort Detroit also moved deeper into this region, establishing a post at Vincennes on the Wabash River.

The response to these British forays was effective, if not well coordinated. In 1778 a young patriot surveyor, George Rogers Clark of Virginia, organized a patriot expedition to counter Indian raids in the west and to reinforce Spanish and French allies in the upper Mississippi valley. He fought successfully against British and Indian forces at Kaskaskia and Cahokia on the Mississippi River. Then Clark marched his troops through the bitter February cold and launched a surprise attack on British forces at Vincennes. Although Detroit remained in British hands, Spanish troops defeated British-allied Indian forces that attacked St. Louis, giving the patriots greater control in the Ohio valley (Map 6.2).

In the summer of 1779, General John Sullivan led 4,000 patriot troops on a campaign to wipe out Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga villages in central and western New York. He succeeded in ending most attacks by Britain’s Iroquois allies and disrupting the supplies being sent by British forces at Fort Niagara. Patriot attacks in Ohio also continued. In one of the worst atrocities fomented by patriots, Pennsylvania militiamen massacred more than one hundred Delaware men, women, and children near present-day Canton, Ohio, even though the Delawares had converted to Christianity and declared their neutrality.

Battles between Indian nations and American settlers did not end with the American Revolution. For the moment, however, patriot militia units and Continental forces supported by French and Spanish allies had defeated British and Indian efforts to control the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

War Rages in the South

Meanwhile British troops sought to regain control of southern states from Georgia to Virginia. British troops captured Savannah, Georgia, in 1778 and soon extended their control over the entire state. When General Clinton was called north in late 1778 to lead British troops against Washington’s Continentals in New Jersey, he left the southern campaign in the hands of Lord Charles Cornwallis.

In May 1780, General Cornwallis reclaimed Charleston, South Carolina, and accepted the surrender of 5,000 Continental soldiers, the largest surrender of patriot troops during the war. He then evicted patriots from the city, purged them from the state government, gained military control of the state, and imposed loyalty oaths on all Carolinians able to fight. To aid his efforts, local loyalists organized militias to battle patriots in the interior. Banastre Tarleton led one especially vicious company of loyalists who slaughtered civilians and murdered many who surrendered. In retaliation, planter and merchant Thomas Sumter organized 800 men who showed a similar disregard for regular army procedures, raiding largely defenseless loyalist settlements near Hanging Rock, South Carolina, in August 1780.

Conflicts between patriots and loyalists raged across the South until the war’s end (see Map 6.2). As retaliatory violence erupted in the interior of South Carolina, General Gates marched his Continental troops south to join 2,000 militiamen from Virginia and North Carolina. But his troops were exhausted and short of food, and on August 16 Cornwallis won a smashing victory against the combined patriot forces at Camden, South Carolina. Soon after news of Gates’s defeat reached General Washington, he heard that Benedict Arnold, commander at West Point, had defected to the British. Indeed, he had been passing information to the British for some time.

MAP 6.2

The War in the West and the South, 1777-1782 Between 1780 and 1781, major battles between Continental and British troops took place in Virginia and the Carolinas, and the British general Cornwallis finally surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781. But patriot forces also battled British troops and their Indian allies from 1777 to 1782 in the Ohio River valley, the lower Mississippi River, and the Gulf coast.

Suddenly, British chances for victory seemed more hopeful. Clinton had moved the bulk of northern troops into New York City and could send units south from there to bolster Cornwallis. Cornwallis was in control of Georgia and South Carolina, and local loyalists were eager to gain control of the southern countryside. Meanwhile Continental soldiers in the North mutinied in early 1780 over terms of enlistment and pay. Patriot morale was low, funds were scarce, and civilians were growing weary of the war.

Yet somehow the patriots prevailed. A combination of luck, strong leadership, and French support turned the tide. In October 1780, when Continental hopes looked especially bleak, a group of 800 frontier sharpshooters routed Major Patrick Ferguson’s loyalist troops at King’s Mountain in South Carolina. The victory kept Cornwallis from advancing into North Carolina and gave the Continentals a chance to regroup.

Shortly after the battle at King’s Mountain, Washington sent General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island to replace Gates as head of southern operations. Taking advice from local militia leaders like Daniel Morgan and Francis Marion, Greene divided his limited force into even smaller units. Marion and Morgan each led 300 Continental soldiers into the South Carolina backcountry, picking up hundreds of local militiamen along the way. At the village of Cowpens, Morgan drew Tarleton’s much larger force into a circle of sharpshooters backed by Continentals and an armed cavalry. While Tarleton escaped, 100 of his men died and 800 were captured.

Cornwallis, enraged at the patriot victory, pursued Continental forces as they retreated. But Cornwallis’s troops had outrun their cannons, and Greene circled back and attacked them at Guilford Court House. Although Cornwallis eventually forced the Continentals to withdraw from the battlefield, his troops suffered enormous losses. In August 1781, frustrated at the ease with which patriot forces still found local support in the South, he hunkered down in Yorktown on the Virginia coast and waited for Clinton to send reinforcements from New York.

Washington now coordinated strategy with his French allies. Comte de Rochambeau marched his 5,000 troops south from Rhode Island to Virginia as General Lafayette led his troops south along Virginia’s eastern shore. At the same time, French naval ships headed north from the West Indies. One unit cut off a British fleet trying to resupply Cornwallis by sea. Another joined up with American privateers to bombard Cornwallis’s forces. By mid-October, British supplies had run out, and it was clear that Clinton was not going to send reinforcements. On October 19, 1781, the British army admitted defeat.

An Uncertain Peace

The Continental Army had managed the impossible. It had defeated the British army and won the colonies’ independence. Yet even with the surrender at Yorktown, the war continued in fits and starts. Peace negotiations in Paris dragged on as French, Spanish, British, and American representatives sought to settle a host of issues. Meanwhile British forces challenged Continental troops in and around New York City even as American recruiters found it nearly impossible to find new enlistments.

Some Continental soldiers continued to fight, but others focused on the long- festering issue of overdue wages. When the congress decided in June 1783 to discharge the remaining troops without providing back pay, a near mutiny erupted in Pennsylvania. Nearly 300 soldiers marched on the congress in Philadelphia. Washington sent troops, including Deborah Sampson/Robert Shurtliff, to put down the mutiny, and bloodshed was avoided when the Pennsylvania soldiers agreed to accept half pay and certificates for the remainder. Despite this compromise, the issue of back pay would continue to plague the nation over the next decade.

Meanwhile patriot representatives in Paris—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay—continued to negotiate peace terms. Rising antiwar sentiment on the British home front, especially after the surrender at Yorktown, forced the governments hand. But the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, opposed the Americans’ republican principles and refused to consider the American delegates as his political equals. Given the importance of the French to the American victory, the congress had instructed its delegates to defer to French wishes. This blocked the American representatives from signing a separate peace with the British.

Eventually, however, U.S. delegates finalized a treaty that secured substantial benefits for the young nation. The United States gained control of all lands south of Canada and north of Louisiana and Florida stretching to the Mississippi River. In addition, the treaty recognized the United States to be “free Sovereign and independent states.” Spain signed a separate treaty with Great Britain in which it regained control of Florida. Despite their role in the war, none of the Indian nations that occupied the lands under negotiation were consulted.

When the Treaty of Paris was finally signed on September 2, 1783, thousands of British troops and their supporters left the colonies for Canada, the West Indies, or England. British soldiers on the western frontier were supposed to be withdrawn at the same time, but they remained for many years and continued to foment hostilities between Indians in the region and U.S. settlers along the frontier.

The evacuation of the British also entailed the exodus of thousands of African Americans who had fought against the patriots. At the end of the war, British officials granted certificates of manumission to more than 1,300 men, 900 women, and 700 children. The largest number of these freed blacks settled in Nova Scotia, where they received small allotments of land from the British. Most, however, lacked the money, tools, or livestock to make such homesteads profitable. Despite these obstacles, some created a small Afro-Canadian community in Nova Scotia, while others migrated to areas considered more hospitable to black residents, such as Sierra Leone. Although thousands gained their freedom by taking up arms for the British, few were well rewarded for their efforts.

A Surprising Victory

Americans had managed to defeat one of the most powerful military forces in the world. That victory resulted from the convergence of many circumstances. Certainly Americans benefited from fighting on their own soil. Their knowledge of the land and its resources as well as earlier experiences fighting against Indians and the French helped prepare them for battles against the British.

Just as important, British troops and officers were far removed from centers of decision making and supplies. Even supplies housed in Canada could not be easily transported the relatively short distance into New York. British commanders were often hesitant to make decisions independently, but awaiting instructions from England proved costly on several occasions, especially since strategists in London often had little sense of conditions on the ground in America.

Both sides depended on outsiders for assistance, but here, too, Americans gained the advantage. While the British army certainly outnumbered its Continental adversary, it relied heavily on German mercenaries, Indian allies, and freed blacks to bolster its regular troops. In victory, such “foreign” forces were relatively reliable, but in defeat, many of them chose to look out for their own interests. The patriots meanwhile marched with French and Spanish armies well prepared to challenge British troops and motivated to gain advantages for France and Spain if Britain was defeated.

Perhaps most importantly, a British victory was nearly impossible without conquering the American colonies one by one. Because a large percentage of colonists supported the patriot cause, British troops had to contend not only with Continental soldiers but also with an aroused citizenry fighting for its independence.


• How and why did the Americans win the Revolutionary War?

• What uncertainties and challenges did the new nation face in the immediate aftermath of victory?

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