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American Revolution, military history

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American Revolution: military history

This article deals with the military history of the American Revolution from 1775 to 1781. For the origins and the political history, see American Revolution

Boston 1775

Political tactics had failed, and the British sent a combat army to Boston to overawe the rebels. On April 18, 1775, Gage sent 700 elite troops to Concord, 21 miles from Boston, to seize illegal munitions stored there. Major John Pitcairn a month before wrote that "one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights." The minute men of Lexington blocked Pitcairn; someone unknown fired the first shot; the British pushed on to Concord. They found the munitions gone and began their return trek only to be stunned by the discovery the Americans were fighting back. Three thousand militia lined the route, firing muskets from behind stone fences. ("The Americans," noted General Israel Putnam, "are not at all afraid of their heads, though very much afraid of their legs; if you cover these they will fight forever.") The Yankee assault was well-planned and well-carried out. Only the timely arrival of a rescue party saved the redcoats, who suffered 270 casualties (versus 93 American casualties).

Fast riders sped word of the British aggression and American resistance up and down the coast. The news reached General Israel Putnam, age 67, as he was plowing his Connecticut farm. He instantly unhitched a horse, left word for his militia to follow, and galluped the 100 miles in 18 hours. Within days Boston was surrounded by 10,000 patriots, enlisted for the year, armed with muskets and ready to fight. Their opportunity came in June, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, when 2,400 redcoats attacked 1,600 patriots dug in on Breed's Hill (in front of Bunker Hill). Crouching low behind their breastworks, the Yankees were told to wait--"Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" The first two waves were mowed down; finally a bayonet charge took the hill. The redcoats won, at a stunning cost of 1,054 casualties, including a high proportion of officers. The Americans lost 400 casualties, and shattered the illusion that they would not or could not stand up to well-trained regulars.

Over the winter of 1775-76, the Americans sent expeditions to conquer Canada. Some of the habitants in French Canada welcomed the Americans and joined the invading army. Some supported the British colonial government. Most remained neutral. [1] The American invasion was hopeless. Short of supplies, outnumbered, sick with disease and too reckless, the Americans were whipped by the British regulars and Canada would continue to fly the Union Jack.

The British battened down in Boston, which was on a peninsula and could not be attacked without artillery on the hills around the city. Led by Henry Knox, a brilliant young clerk who had read military treatises and knew how to seize the moment, the patriots obtained 60 heavy guns from the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga, in upstate New York. Water traffic was controlled by the Royal Navy, so Knox organized ox teams that hauled the heavy guns across the snows and ice in winter 1775-76. When the guns finally arrived in Boston in March, 1776, the British in Boston were defenseless; they withdrew to the great British naval base in Halifax, Canada. The rebellion faced by their old enemy pleased the French, who began secret shipments of gunpowder, muskets and other vitally needed munitions, and allowed American privateers to use ports in France and the French West Indies.


Reference books

  • ABC CLIO encyclopedia
  • Boatner III, Mark M. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1966); excellent guide to details


  • John R. Alden. A History of the American Revolution (1989), general survey; strong on military (ISBN: 0306803666)
  • John Ferling, ed., The World Turned Upside Down: The American Victory in the War of Independence (1988).
  • Higginbotham, Don. Revolution in America: Considerations and Comparisons. U. of Virginia Pr., 2005. 230 pp.
  • Bruce Lancaster. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library) (ISBN: 0828102813) (1985), heavily illustrated
  • James Kirby Martin. In the Course of Human Events: An Interpretive Exploration of the American Revolution (1979), short survey (ISBN: 0882957953)
  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (1982) online edition
  • Miller, John C.
  • Weintraub, Stanley. Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783. Free Pr., 2005. 375 pp.
  • Higginbottom, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices 1763-1789, 1971, wide-ranging survey by leading scholar
  • James Kirby Martin and Mark E. Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origin of the Republic, 1763–1789 (1982), short
  • Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1979.

Surveys: British perspective

  • Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1991. British perspective
  • Flavell, Julie and Conway, Stephen, eds. Britain and America Go to War: The Impact of War and Warfare in Anglo-America, 1754-1815. U. Press of Florida, 2004. 284 pp.
  • Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. The American Revolution, 1763-1783 1898 by leading British scholar; online edition
  • Marston, Daniel. The American Revolution, 1774-1783. Routledge. 2003. 95 pp survey online edition
  • Mackesy, Piers. War for America, 2nd edition, 1993. British perspective
  • Trevelyan
  • Wrong, George M. Canada and the American Revolution: The Disruption of the First British Empire. 1935. by Canadian scholaronline edition

State, regional and local studies

  • Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and their World (1976). re Massachusetts
  • Mitnick, Barbara J., ed. New Jersey in the American Revolution. Rutgers U. Pr., 2005. 268 pp.
  • Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789 (1971). an analytical history of the war

Military: North

  • Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing (2004), Pulitzer prize winner; study of 1776-77 online excerpt
  • Ketchum, Richard M. Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (1973)
  • McCullough, David. 1776. 386 pp.
  • Reed, John F. Campaign to Valley Forge: July 1, 1777–December 19, 1777 (1965)
  • Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778 (2003).
  • Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution, 2 vols., 1952, a good narrative of all the major battles.
  • Wrong, George M. Washington and His Comrades in Arms: A Chronicle of the War of Independence (1921) by a Canadian scholar online edition
  • West Point Atlas

Military: South

  • Crow, Jeffrey C. and Larry E. Tise, eds. The Southern Experience in the American Revolution (1978)
  • Higgins, W. Robert ed. The Revolutionary War in the South: Power, Conflict, and Leadership (1979)
  • Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (1981)
  • John S. Pancake, This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780-1782 (1985)
  • Hugh Rankin, The North Carolina Continentals (1971)
  • Theodore Thayer; Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution (1960) online edition
  • Russell F. Weigley, The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782 (1970); portrays guerrilla war, like Vietnam
  • Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution, 2 vols., 1952, a good narrative of all the major battles.
  • Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain's Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775-1780. U. of South Carolina Pr., 2005. 341 pp.


  • Bodle, Wayne. Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (2002)
  • Buchanan, John. The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army That Won the Revolution. 2004. online edition
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride (1995)
  • Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and their World (1976). re Massachusetts
  • Kennett, Lee. French Forces in America, 1977.
  • Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783 (1979)
  • Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, 1976.

British army & Loyalists

  • Atwood, R. The Hessians, 1980.
  • George A. Billias, ed., George Washington's Opponents (1969) essays on the chief British generals
  • Smith, P.H. Loyalists and Redcoats: A Study in British Revolutionary Policy, 1964.
  • Claude Halstead Van Tyne; The Loyalists in the American Revolution (1929) online edition
  • Sylvia Frey, The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period (1981)


  • Dull, Jonathan. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1775-1787, 1975.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones (1959)
  • Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1989.



  • George A. Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals (1964);

George Washington

  • John Alden, George Washington: A Biography (1984);
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall George Washington: A Biography (7 vols., New York, 1948–1957); also one-vol abridged edition
  • Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. Random House, 2005. 450 pp.
  • Palmer, Dave. The Way of the Fox: American Strategy in the War of Independence (1975)


  • Billias, George A. ed., George Washington's Opponents (1969) essays on the chief British generals


  • Christopher Duffy, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason (1988), on European methods
  • Peterson, Harold L. The Book of the Continental Soldier (1968); uniforms, weapons, gear
  • Peterson, Harold L. Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783 (1956)


  • Cappon, Lester. Atlas of the American Revolution (1976); best coverage of society, economics and politics; thin on military
  • Symonds, Craig L. A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution (1986); best on battles

Primary sources

  • Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants (1967); excellent collection of primary ources; highly recommended
  • Lib of America edition
  • S. E. Morison; Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution, 1764-1788, and the Formation of the Federal Constitution (1923) online edition
  • Dann, ed. John C. The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (1980); from pension applications
  • Martin, J. P. Private Yankee Doodle (1962); fascinating autobiography of an ordinary soldier who was everywhere
  • Washington, George. Writings (1988) (Library of America edition) 440 letters and key documents. online table of contents
  • Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series. University Press of Virginia. Latest volume is Vol. 14: March-April 1778. ed by Philander D. Chase, 2004. 832 pp.
  • Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 Ed. by K.G. Davies. 21 vols. (Irish Academic University Press, 1972), all the important British documents; available in large research libraries
  • Mason Wade (1945) vol 1