The battles for American independence began more than a year before the historic vote of the Colonies to declare independence from Britain. The British Army, along with their Navy and Marines had occupied Boston since 1768. The following are the battles fought before and after America actually had an official Army, rather than the magnificent “rabble” who accomplished so much, with so little. Below is the flavor of some of the most important battlefields.
Happy Birthday America!
Home of the Free, Because of the Brave
Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 1775:
Britain had a force of 1500, with 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 53 captured. U.S. Colonists had a force of 3800, 49 killed, 39 wounded and none captured. Source.
The Battle of Chelsea Creek, May 1775:
American soldiers captured the British ship, Diana, and the Rabble Army had their first naval capture of the war.
Britain had a force of 850, with 2 killed, 32 wounded, and none captured. U.S. Colonists had a force of 900, with none killed, 4 wounded and none captured. Source.
The Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill), June 1775:
Bunker Hill was proclaimed a British victory, which technically it was. But in plain truth His Majesty’s forces, led by General Howe, had suffered more than 1,000 casualties in an appalling slaughter before gaining the high ground. As was observed acidly in bot London and Boston, a few more such victories would surely spell ruin for the victors. Source: David McCullough’s 1776 (page 8, hardback edition)
The Battle of Bunker Hill started when the colonists learned about the British plan to occupy Dorchester Heights. The colonists were understandably shaken by this news. They thought of this as the last straw, and they had to protect their land and freedom…
In order to beat the British to the high ground, General Prescott took 1,200 of his often times undisciplined, disobedient, and sometimes intoxicated soldiers to dig into and fortify Bunker Hill with the cover of night on June 16.
When dawn broke, the British were stunned to see Breed’s Hill fortified overnight with a 160-by-30-foot earthen structure. The British General, Gage, dispatched 2,300 troops under the command of Major General Howe to take control of the hill.
So it came to be that General Prescott did not actually fortify Bunker’s Hill, but Breed’s Hill instead. How did this happen? One proposed idea is that Colonel William Prescott, since fortifying the hill in the middle of the night, chose the wrong hill. Another theory is that the map the Colonel used was incorrect, since many maps during this period had commonly misidentified the hills. Another suggestion, and probably the most practical, is that Breed’s Hill is closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. Regardless of the reason, the Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on Breed’s Hill.
The British victory at Bunker Hill happened with the arrival of 1,000 men, a full brigade with artillery. Minutes before their arrival, the only British officer still uninjured was considering surrender…
When the British forces were firmly established on the ground at the base of the hill they proceeded to charge. The British just expected to march up the hill and just scare the colonists away. The British Regulars advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass…
As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. The fact they waited so long to commence an attack was that General Prescott has been assumed to have given the famous order, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”
If this command was given it would have been to either help preserve their already low ammunition supplies, and to help keep the men from shooting out of their capable ranges. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. The British forces were driven back twice, but on their third and final thrust forward the British were able to break through the colonists’ line, overrunning the tentative American fortifications, thus taking the hill.
The colonists had run out of ammunition and supplies. The colonists fled back up the peninsula since it was their only escape route. This battle, which lasted for approximately three hours, was one of the deadliest of the Revolutionary War.
Although the British technically won the battle because they took control of the hill, they suffered too many losses to fully benefit from it. The British had suffered more than one thousand casualties out of the 2,300 or so who fought. While the colonists only suffered 400 to 600 casualties from an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 men. Besides having fewer deaths than the British, the colonists believe they had won in other ways as well.
The colonies voted for independence from Britain.
Staten Island (New York), July 3, 1776
… 9,000 troops led by General William Howe had landed on Staten Island, where hundreds of Tories were on hand to welcome them. Howe himself had gone ashore on July 2, the very day that Congress had voted for independence, and in the days following, up the Narrows between Staten Island and Long Island came ever more British sails, including an armada of 130 warships and transports from England….
Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), July 4, 1776
In Congress, discussion of the Declaration appears to have continued through the morning until about eleven o’clock, when debate was closed and the vote taken. Again, as on July 2, twelve colonies voted in the affirmative, while New York abstained. Again, John Dickinson was absent. It all went very smoothly. Congress ordered that the document be authenticated and printed. But it would be another month before the engrossed copy was signed by the delegates. For now, only the President, John Hancock, and the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, fixed their signatures.
With passage of the declaration of Independence thus completed, and having thereby renounced allegiance to the King and proclaimed the birth of a new United States of America, the Congress proceeded directly to other business. Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4, 1776.
Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), July 8, 1776
The great day of celebration came Monday,…at noon in the State House Yard, when the declaration was read aloud before an exuberant crow. With drums pounding, five battalions paraded through the city and “on the common, gave us the feu de joie [thirteen cannon blasts], notwithstanding the scarcity of powder,”…Bells rang through the day and into the night. There were bonfires at street corners. Houses were illuminated with candles in their windows. In the Supreme Court Room at the State House, as planned, a half dozen Philadelphians chosen for the honor took the King’s Arms down from the wall and carried it off to be thrown on top of a huge fire and consumed in an instant, the blaze lighting the scene for blocks around.
Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), August 2, 1776
The actual signing of the document would not take place until Friday, August 2, after a fair copy had been elegantly engrossed on a single, giant sheet of parchment by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Nothing was reported of the historic event…
The fact that a signed document now existed, as well as the names of the signatories, was kept secret for the time being, as all were acutely aware that by taking up the pen and writing their names, they had committed treason, a point of considerably greater immediacy now, with the British army so near at hand.
On August 22, 1776 the British landed on Long Island. British General William Howe defeated General Charles Lee at the Battle of Long Island. This took place at Jamaica Pass in Brooklyn. The British had has lost 63 killed and 337 wounded and missing while Washington had lost about 970 men killed, wounded or missing, and 1,079 taken captive. George Washington had lost almost a quarter of his entire command.
On August 26, General Charles Lee retreated to Brooklyn Heights. The British could have won an even greater victory if General William Howe had heeded the pleas of his officers to storm the American redoubts at Brooklyn Heights. General Howe wanted to avoid another Bunker (Breed’s) Hill. He ordered his men to dig in and bring the guns into range.
When George Washington arrived on August 27, he wasted no time on blaming who lost the battle of Long Island. Remaining cool, calm, and confident , he oversaw the construction of new fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. A serendipitous downpour made further British attacks unlikely. American troops found it hard to cook their food or to keep their powder dry. On August 28, additional troops arrived to boost the number of men under his command to 9,000.
Washington realized that he had put himself in a trap. He had split his troops between Manhattan and Long Island, with the Hudson River, the East River, and Long Island Sound open to British warships and transport. Admiral Richard Howe, the brother of General Howe, could cut him off if moved the fleet from the New Jersey Shore to the East River to block movement from Long Island to Manhattan. Unfavorable winds and rains kept Admiral Howe from taking advantage of this opportunity to cut Washington off.
Rain continued to be intermittent the next day, August 29. Washington realized his position was untenable and it was time to withdraw. The seagoing soldiers of John Glover’s Marblehead [Massachusetts] Regiment noiselessly ferried Washington’s troops across the East River to Manhattan on the night of August 29. Darkness, fog, and bad weather immobilized Admiral Howe’s fleet. Washington’s cool and firm command exacted superb discipline from green troops. They remained quiet throughout the ordeal. He had kept the British high command in utter ignorance of the evacuation that he hastily ordered. When the British charged in the morning, they founded empty trenches. Washington’s army lived to fight another day.
General George Washington had, early in his chieftaincy, urged upon the Congress the necessity of the establishment of a permanent army, and with prophetic words had predicted the very evils arising from short enlistments and loose methods of creating officers, which now prevailed…
The Congress had just resolved (September 10th) to form the army anew into eighty-eight battalions, to be “enlisted as soon as possible, and to serve during the war;” but they were so afraid of the “military despotism” implied by a standing army, that much of the efficacy of this longer term of enlistment was neutralized by retaining the old method of levying troops by requisitions upon the several States, and the appointment of officers by local authorities without due regard to their qualifications. Washington was compelled to relinquish all present hope of obtaining an efficient army for the great work before him. Yet he never despaired nor uttered a petulant word of complaint, nor threatened to resign. His duty as a patriot and soldier was plain, and he pursued it…
The fight outside had been desperate. The ground was strewn with the mingled bodies of Americans, Germans, and Britons… At half-past one o’clock the British flag waved over the fort in triumph, where the American flag had been unfurled in the morning with defiance. The Americans had lost in killed and wounded not more than one hundred men; the British had lost almost a thousand…Washington, standing on the brow of the Palisades at Fort Lee, with the author of “Common Sense” by his side, witnessed the disaster with anguish, but could afford no relief. The fort was lost to the Americans forever…
After the abandonment of Fort Lee in the face of a British invasion on November 20, 1776, the Continental troops under command of General Washington had retreated across the Jerseys to the edge of Pennsylvania, passing over the Delaware River on December 8th. In an audacious maneuver, designed to reverse the fortunes of war and restore American morale, Washington determined to attack the three Hessian battalions stationed at Trenton, a force of about 1,200 soldiers under command of Commandant Colonel Johann Rall. The boldness of Washington’s plan of attack lay partly in its timing: the Continental troops would approach Trenton in the wee hours of December 26th. Colonel John Fitzgerald, one of Washington’s aides, noted how the Hessians were vulnerable on one particular account: “They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance tonight.”
At six o’clock on Christmas evening, the troops marched toward McKonkey’s Ferry, nine miles north of Trenton. Many of the ill-clad soldiers wrapped rags around their feet; others were shoeless. Boats collected at this strategic crossing were manned by Colonel John Glover’s Fourteenth Regiment of Continental Line, a unit largely composed of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts.
The passage of 2,700 American soldiers commenced at twilight, but was impeded by snow fall that turned to sleet and by heavy ice floes in the river. Washington, wrapped in his cloak, watched silently from the shore. The artillery finally landed on the Jersey bank of the Delaware at about three o’clock in the morning of December 26, 1776, and the march got underway an hour later.
Two miles beyond the landing, at Bear’s Tavern, Washington separated his army into two columns: General Greene a division of about 1,200 men and ten fieldpieces, accompanied by General Washington, down the Pennington Road while General Sullivan’s division of about 1,500 men marched down the River Road. Informed along the march by courier that the storm was making muskets unfit for firing, Washington responded: “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”
British forces at Trenton wer 1,520 with 22 killed, 86 wounded and 906 captured. General Washington’s Rabble in Arms totaled 2,400 with 2 dead, 5 wounded and none captured.
More importantly, the Revolution now had a chance, morale was improved, and the people once again believed they could stand and face the enemy troops. The British outrages in the invasion of NJ had turned many previously on the fence to the side of the rebels, paper money was acceptable once more and the rebel government and army found support again. Washington had learned to fight not the main British army, but its outposts, forcing the British to give up any effort to control the hinterlands of America. The French government, encouraged by the British defeats, released supplies to the American war effort. In England, the royal government started losing support for the war. The Crisis was past, even if severe hardship and fighting were yet ahead, in a long and bitter struggle for freedom and independence.
It was a critical time for George Washington. He had just been soundly defeated in New York and morale was very low…This victory was essential to give the soldiers hope that a group of rag-tag soldiers could indeed be victorious in their struggle for independence…
Washington positioned his troops along the creek. Congress even sent four deputies to inspect and they approved of where Washington had placed his men and urged a staunch defense. They knew that if the Americans failed here, it was likely Philadelphia would fall. Washington felt a battle of major consequence was coming.
A newspaper of the day quoted the general as saying: “Should they push their designs against Philadelphia, on this route, there all is at stake. They will put the contest on the event of a single battle. If they are overthrown they are utterly undone. The war is at an end. Now, then, is the time for our most strenuous endeavors. One bold stroke will free the land.” Washington’s army seemed well-positioned and well-prepared to meet the British thrust…
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Battle of Brandywine is the great number of conflicting reports Washington received throughout the morning and early afternoon regarding whether Howe was moving troops north — towards the supply depots up at Reading? To ford the Brandywine elsewhere? To conduct a major flanking movement?
Washington heard a preliminary report at around 7 A.M. and a 10 A.M. report saying that Howe’s troops were moving north…
…Major Eustace, Colonel Bland, and a patriotic local squire named Thomas Cheyney finally convinced Washington that the reports of significant northern troop movement were real…
Casualties at Brandywine were strewn across a 10-square mile area of the battlefield, making final determinations particularly difficult…
Major General Greene estimated American losses at 1,200 men. He also reported the loss of 10 irreplaceable cannon and a Howitzer. A Hessian officer listed the American casualty and captured rate at 1,300. An American officer under Brigadier General Nash reported British losses at 1,960 and the Americans at 700.
The Continental Congress resolved that:
…the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new Constellation.
Now it is the Americans turn to harass the British, and they do in small ways, burning bridges, muddying wells, cutting trees across roads, and snapping at their heels. The British advance only 40 miles in a week. The weather is warm and wet, and traveling is hard muddy work. The Hessians suffer most as they carry heavy packs, and many fall from the heat, others desert…
General Lee advises to await developments-he doesn’t want to commit the army against the famous ability of the British regulars. He has more experience than Washington, and has influence on all the officers, and Washington has a tendency to defer to him, against his own judgment. In a war council a majority of officers vote not to engage the enemy in an all out assault. The Americans, though now trained and better equipped, and had almost the same number of troops, they could not afford to lose a major engagement.
In spite of Lee, Washington determines that the British were vulnerable to attack as they were spread out across the state with their baggage trains, and moved from Valley Forge into NJ in pursuit.
On the 23rd and 24th, the army encamps on the farm of John Hart, in Hopewell, and Washington calls a council of war at the home of John Hunt. Incredibly, most of the officers vote not to attack the British while they are vulnerable. Washington decides to compromise, and have an advance corp engage the enemy.
Now military etiquette comes into play. General Lee, who is senior should be offered the job. He doesn’t want it and he doesn’t support an attack- he doesn’t think Americans can stand against British regulars. Washington offers it to Lafayette. Already he has the NJ militia and Morgan’s riflemen on Clinton’s flank, and orders Lafayette with Generals Scott and Maxwell to move near the British.
Lee changes his mind- a mission of this size should be his to command. Washington allows him to take over command of the advance corp. He adds to the advance corps the brigades of Wayne and Poor, for a total of 6000 men, for an attack on the rear of the British column. Washington will support him with the main army.
On the 27th Lee is next to the British. Washington orders Lee to attack the next day, and Washington will support him with the main army. Lee does nothing to prepare for it. He tells his generals he will have to make plans as he encounters the enemy and learns their situation. He issues no orders to General Dickinson, with the NJ militia, or Col. Morgan, with the rifle regiment, which units are on the flanks of the British column. He does not gather information or look at maps….
Though Washington has failed to destroy the British column, he had inflicted damage to their troops, and proven that Americans can stand against the regulars, without the advantage of surprise. The British have defended their baggage, but were unable to defeat the Americans in open battle. Since the Americans hold the field, they claim the victory, but it is really a draw or even a British victory, since the British were only defending their baggage train, not looking for a battle. However, the British had covered 9 miles a day until the battle. After the battle, they covered 24 miles in one day. Both sides lost about 350 men in killed, wounded or captured. both sides lost men heavily due to heat exhaustion.
In the aftermath, Lee is court-martialled, and is found guilty, and is removed from the Army for a year. He never returns to bother Washington again with either his ego or bad advice. Monmouth was the last battle fought between the two MAIN armies, and the longest. After this, the fighting involved secondary forces (though still large forces), as the war shifted to the southern colonies.
First American Flag is hoisted at battle:
The American flag is flown in battle for the first time, during a Revolutionary War skirmish at Cooch’s Bridge, Maryland. Patriot General William Maxwell ordered the stars and strips banner raised as a detachment of his infantry and cavalry met an advance guard of British and Hessian troops. The rebels were defeated and forced to retreat to General George Washington‘s main force near Brandywine Creek inPennsylvania.
The American commander Brigadier General Robert Howe of North Carolina, with only 700 men, made a feeble attempt to defend the city. But with troops in their rear, the American defense was broken. With the loss of well over 550 men, and all the artillery, Howe was forced to retire into South Carolina.
Henry Clinton, in charge of British troop in America, is ordered to move to the South. Intelligence reports in Britain indicate that both Georgia and South Carolina have a large Loyalist population who will side with the British. However, to do so means Clinton will have to reduce his manpower in the North. This would open his troop in the northern theater to attack by George Washington. Clinton and his advisors come up with a plan. They send 8,500 troops to Savannah.
Campbell gained control of the city at the cost to his forces of seven killed and seventeen wounded. He took 453 prisoners, and there were at least 83 dead and 11 wounded from Howe’s forces. When Howe’s retreat ended at Purrysburg, South Carolina he had 342 men left, less than half his original army. Howe would receive much of the blame for the disaster, with William Moultrie arguing that he should have either disputed the landing site in force or retreated without battle to keep his army intact. However, he was exonerated in a court martial that inquired into the event.
Campbell wrote that he would be “the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress”. The British held Savannah for the duration of the war, which they used as a base to conduct coastal raids from Charleston, South Carolina to the Florida coast. In the fall of 1779, a combined French and American attempt to recapture Savannah failed with significant casualties. The British held Savannah through the remainder of the war and used the city as a staging ground for further attacks in the South, until the British evacuated on July 11, 1782.
…May 6th, Fort Moultrie surrendered. On May 8th, General Clinton called for unconditional surrender from Maj. General Benjamin Lincoln, but Lincoln again tried to negotiate for honors of war. On May 11th, the British fired red-hot shot that burned several homes before Lincoln finally called for parlay and to negotiate terms for surrender. The final terms dictated that the entire Continental force captured were prisoners of war. On May 12th, the actual surrender took place with General Lincoln leading a ragged bunch of soldiers out of the city.
The senior officers including Maj. General Benjamin Lincoln eventually were exchanged for British officers in American hands. For all others in the Continental army, a long stay on prison boats in Charleston Harbor was the result, where sickness and disease would ravage them. The defeat left no Continental Army in the South and the country wide open for British taking. Even before Lincoln surrendered, the Continental Congress had already appointed Maj. General Horatio Gates to replace him.
This was a severe blow to the colonies. It was the greatest loss of manpower and equipment of the war for the Americans and gave the British nearly complete control of the Southern colonies.
The Battle of Camden was a major victory for the British in the Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War. On August 16, 1780, British forces under Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis routed the American forces of Major General Horatio Gates about 10 km (six miles) north of Camden, South Carolina, strengthening the British hold on the Carolinas.
The Camden Battlefield, located about 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Camden, is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and is undergoing preservation in a private-public partnership. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Aspects of the battle were included in the 2000 movie The Patriot, in which Ben and Gabriel Martin are seen watching a similar battle. Ben comments at the stupidity of Gates fighting “muzzle to muzzle with Redcoats”. The film is not historically accurate, depicting too many Continental troops relative to the number of militia, and that the Continentals and militia retreated at the same time.
Ferguson was right in believing that his would be attackers would expose themselves to musket fire if they attempted to scale the summit. But Ferguson did not realize his men could only fire if they went out into the open, exposing themselves to musket fire. Most of the Patriot troops were skilled hunters who routinely killed fast moving animals. On this day, Ferguson’s men would not find escape an easy task.
The fighting began around 3 p.m. when some of Ferguson’s men noticed the Patriot soldiers surrounding the mountain. After a brief skirmish, the shooting began in earnest when two of the Patriot regiments opened fire on the Loyalists simultaneously. The Loyalists fired back but the Patriots were protected by the heavily wooded area.
After nearly an hour of fighting, Ferguson suddenly fell from his horse. One foot was hanging in his stirrup — several, perhaps as many as eight bullets were in his body. Some accounts say he died before he hit the ground. Other accounts say that his men propped him against a tree, where he died. Ferguson was the only British soldier killed in the battle — all others were Americans, either Loyalist or Patriot.
Ferguson’s second in command then ordered that a white flag of surrender be hoisted.
Despite the call for surrender by the Loyalists, the Patriots could not immediately stop their men from shooting. Many Patriots remembered that the infamous Colonel Tarleton had mowed down Patriot troops at Waxhaw despite the fact that the troops were trying to surrender. Eventually, the fighting at Kings Mountain stopped.
In all, 225 Loyalists were killed, 163 were wounded, 716 were taken prisoner. 28 Patriots were killed and 68 were wounded. Among the Patriot dead: Colonel James Williams of South Carolina.
Historians consider the Battle of Kings Mountain to be the “turning point in the South” in America’s War for Independence. The victory of Patriots over Loyalist troops destroyed the left wing of Cornwallis army. The battle also effectively ended, at least temporarily, the British advance into North Carolina. Lord Cornwallis was forced to retreat from Charlotte into South Carolina to wait for reinforcements. The victory of the Overmountain Men allowed General Nathaniel Greene the opportunity to reorganize the American Army.
When British General Henry Clinton learned of his men’s defeat at Kings Mountain, he is reported to have called it “the first link of a chain of evils” that he feared might lead to the collapse of the British plans to quash the Patriot rebellion. He was right. American forces went on to defeat the British ar Cowpens. A little more than a year after Kings Mountain, Washington accepted Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.
The Battle of Cowpens…was a decisive victory by American Revolutionary forces under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, in the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War. It was a turning point in the reconquest of South Carolina from the British.
Coming in the wake of the American debacle at Camden, Cowpens was a surprising victory and a turning point that changed the psychology of the entire war—”spiriting up the people”, not only those of the backcountry Carolinas, but those in all the Southern colonies. As it was, the Americans were encouraged to fight further, and the Loyalists and British were demoralized.
Furthermore, its strategic result—the destruction of an important part of the British army in the South—was incalculable toward ending the war. Along with the British defeat at the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cowpens was a decisive blow to Cornwallis, who might have defeated much of the remaining resistance in South Carolina had Tarleton won at Cowpens. Instead, the battle set in motion a series of events leading to the end of the war. Cornwallis abandoned his pacification efforts in South Carolina, stripped his army of its excess baggage, and pursued Greene’s force into North Carolina. After a long chase Cornwallis met Greene at Guilford Court House, winning a pyrrhic victory that so damaged his army that he withdrew to Yorktown, Virginia, to rest and refit. This gave Washington the opportunity, which he seized, to trap and defeat Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, which caused the British to give up their efforts to regain their colonies.
In the opinion of John Marshall, “Seldom has a battle, in which greater numbers were not engaged, been so important in its consequences as that of Cowpens.” It gave General Nathanael Greene his chance to conduct a campaign of “dazzling shiftiness” that led Cornwallis by “an unbroken chain of consequences to the catastrophe at Yorktown which finally separated America from the British crown.”
On the bright, late winter day of March 15, 1781, the Revolutionary War came to a remote county seat in north central North Carolina. Guilford Courthouse, with its population of considerably fewer than 100, was on this day the temporary residence of 4,400 American soldiers and their leader, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene.
The British had overrun Georgia and South Carolina and showed every indication of ripping the stars and stripes of North Carolina and Virginia from the new American flag. From the ragged remnants of a defeated southern army, Greene had raised a new force comprising 1,700 Continentals (three-year enlistees in the regular army) and about 2,700 militia (mostly farmers who were nonprofessional temporary soldiers called up for short periods of service during an emergency). Early on the morning of March 15, General Greene deployed his men in three lines of battle across the Great Salisbury Wagon Road that led off to the southwest toward the camp of the British army commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis. Although grossly outnumbered, Cornwallis nonetheless was certain that his redcoats, victors on scores of battlefields, could overcome the rebels…
In the final stages of the fighting Lord Cornwallis found portions of his army under simultaneous attack from two directions, as if caught between hammer and anvil. He extricated his men by firing two cannon directly into the mass of struggling soldiers, as if to blast them apart. A number of his own soldiers were killed in the process (another British officer, Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara, begged him not to do it), but when the smoke cleared the battle was over. General Greene had ordered his army to retreat, leaving the British in possession of the battlefield.
Such was the strange and untoward nature of this war, that victory now, as we have already seen in more than one other instance, was productive of all the consequences of defeat. The news of this victory in England, for a while, produced the usual effects upon the minds of the people in general. A very little time and reflection gave rise to other thoughts; and a series of victories caused for the first time, the beginning of a general despair. The fact was, that while the British army astonished both the old and new world, by the greatness of its exertions and the rapidity of its marches, it had never advanced any nearer even to the conquest of North Carolina. And such was the hard fate of the victors, who had gained so much glory at Guilford, as in the first place, to abandon a part of their wounded; and, in the second, to make a circuitous retreat of 200 miles, before they could find shelter or rest.
The Siege of Yorktown or Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was a decisive victory by combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded by General Lord Cornwallis. It proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War, as the surrender of Cornwallis’s army prompted the British government eventually to negotiate an end to the conflict…
On September 26, transports with artillery, siege tools, and some French infantry and shock troops from the Head of Elk, the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, arrived, giving Washington command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 Militia, and 8,000 Continentals. Early on September 28, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown. The French took the positions on the left while the Americans took the position of honor on the right. Cornwallis had a chain of seven redoubts and batteries linked by earthworks along with batteries that covered the narrows of the York River at Gloucester Point. That day, Washington reconnoitered the British defenses and decided that they could be bombarded into submission. The Americans and the French spent the night of the 28th sleeping out in the open, while working parties built bridges over the marsh. Some of the American soldiers hunted down wild hogs to eat.
On September 29, Washington moved the army closer to Yorktown and British gunners opened up on the infantry. Throughout the day several British cannon fired on the Americans but there were few casualties. Fire from American riflemen and the Hessian Jaegers was exchanged…
On the morning of October 16, more allied guns were in line and the fire intensified. In desperation, Cornwallis attempted to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. At Gloucester point the troops could break through the allied lines and escape into Virginia and then march to New York. One wave of boats made it across, but when they returned to take more soldiers across, a squall hit, making the evacuation impossible.
The fire on Yorktown from the allies was heavier than ever as new artillery pieces joined the line. Cornwallis talked with his officers that day and they agreed that their situation was hopeless.
On the morning of October 17, a drummer appeared followed by an officer waving a white handkerchief. The bombardment ceased, and the officer was blindfolded and led behind the Allied lines. Negotiations began on October 18, between two British officers, lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross and Colonel John Laurens, who represented the Americans, and the Marquis de Noailles, who represented the French. In order to make sure that nothing fell apart between the allies at the last minute, Washington ordered that the French be given an equal share in every step of the surrender process.
The Articles of Capitulation were signed on October 19, 1781. Cornwallis’ British men were declared prisoners of war, promised good treatment in American camps, and officers were permitted to return home after taking their parole. At 2:00 pm the allied army entered the British positions, with the French on the left and the Americans on the right. The British and Hessian troops marched between them, while according to legend the British drummers and fifers played to the tune of “The World Turn’d Upside Down”. The British soldiers had been issued with new uniforms hours before the surrender and until prevented by General O’Hara some threw down their muskets with the apparent intention of smashing them. Others wept or appeared to be drunk. 8,000 troops, 214 artillery pieces, thousands of muskets, 24 transport ships, wagons and horses were captured.
Cornwallis refused to meet formally with Washington, and also refused to come to the ceremony of surrender, claiming illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara presented the sword of surrender to Rochambeau. Rochambeau shook his head and pointed to Washington. O’Hara offered it to Washington, but he refused to accept it, and motioned to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated by the British at Charleston, to accept it. The British soldiers marched out and laid down their arms in between the French and American armies, while many civilians watched. At this time, the troops on the other side of the river in Gloucester also surrendered.
Seven years of British determination to bring South Carolina to her knees met failure. The spirit that had long resisted royal edict and church canon, the fierce desire and indomitable will to be masters of their own destinies, and the dauntless courage that had carved a new way of life from a wilderness were again threatened by oppression; so, little difference was felt among nationalities and creeds, causing a unity to grow among the new world “peasants and shepherds” that shook the foundations of old regimes…
The claim of several historians that the British won the battle is challenged by Christine Swager in her book The Valiant Died: The Battle of Eutaw Springs September 8, 1781. The book argues that, first, at the end of the battle, the British held the majority, but not the entirety, of the field where the main battle took place. Greene held part of the field where the initial skirmish spilled out of the woods into the clearings. Swager also argues that Greene meant to re-engage the enemy on the following day, but was prevented from doing so because the excssively wet weather conditions negated much of his firepower.
Both armies did not leave the vicinity for at least a full day following the battle. When Greene withdrew, he left a strong picket to oppose a possible British advance, while Stewart withdrew the remnants of his force towards Charleston. His rear was apparently under constant fire at least until rendezvousing with reinforcements near Moncks Corner.
Stewart reported casualties of 85 killed, 351 wounded and possibly as many as 420 missing, a casualty rate of over 40%. Some evidence suggests these numbers were higher. American losses as reported by Greene were 139 dead, 375 wounded, and 41 missing.
Despite winning a tactical military victory the British lost strategically. Their inability to stop Greene’s continuing operations forced them to abandon most of their conquests in the South, leaving them in control of a small number of isolated enclaves at Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. The British attempt to pacify the south with Loyalist support had failed even before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.