The American War of Independence

The Colonies were not for us, they were a nadir of seething resentment and antipathy. Let the French have them for they will amount to nothing – George Revere

Blogs are strange creatures, when you start you wonder what you are going to write about, whether anyone will read them, and if they do, will they be interested? But they areas much about the writer as they are about the reader, and they do serve a purpose, even if it is only to satisfy the fundamental curiosities of the blogger. So with that in mind I apologise for occasionally veering off subject of family history and talk about other subjects, although to be fair, history, which is what I’m talking about today is intrinsically linked to genealogy and for those of us that are also social historians it is a natural leap to make. So here is my blog, a very concise one, on the American War of Independence, hopefully giving some interesting background to the events that took place this very day 236 years ago.

British warships forcing passage of the Hudson River.

History has always fascinated me, even when I was a callow youth taking my O-Levels I seemed to have some affinity for the subject. Of course it was physically impossible to cover all the events that had taken place over the centuries, even if I had just gone to school and not taken any other subjects, so vast swathes of historical facts and anecdotes have passed me by, one of those being the American War of Independence. I knew the basics, July 4th, 1776, George Washington etc, but I didn’t know the detail. Now obviously there are reams and reams of writings on the subject and I don’t intend to describe the whole war, especially from my biased point of view over here in the Mother country, I shall leave that to you. But here are some interesting facts (at least I find them interesting) that I really didn’t have any idea about when starting this blog, so this is just a taster to encourage you the reader to go and do your own research and learn something new.

Like all good wars and rebellions, the American War of Independence was one that started quite a few years before the actual hostilities in 1775. To Britain the colonies were a land to be exploited for the benefit of those at home but a certain independence was already occurring even in the earlier part of the 18th Century. Things started coming to a head after the Anglo French war of 1756-63. Part of the theatre of war was North America, and in protecting her assets and effectively ending French interest in that continent, Britain had spent a lot of money and it was felt that the colonies hadn’t contributed their fair share. A certain amount of restrictions were implemented from London causing resentment in America. At the heart of the division between the colonists and Britain was a fundamentally different concept of the purpose of the colonies. To the British, their American lands were there largely to provide raw materials to Britain and be consumers of British manufactured goods. This feeling expressed itself in an increasing control and restriction of American trade and industry that helped to build up resentment, especially in New England, where manufacturing goods for export to the southern colonies was already an important part of the local economy. In contrast, many of the colonists saw themselves as carving a new society from the wilderness, unrestricted by decisions made 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic. Along with various acts instigated by the British Government, such as the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act of 1765, the British pressed the colonists for more revenue. Ultimately it was the taxation of tea that led to the war starting, with the now infamous Boston Tea Party in 1773 (I’ll let you read up on that) and even then there was no thought of revolution, just protest against the British Government. However due to the strong arm tactics of and threats from the government what started out as protest ended up as a war!

Washington and Lafayette inspect the troops at Valley Forge.

But this local war, initially nothing but a skirmish, led to Britain losing her colonies and to what could only be described as a global war. Ironically the defeat of the French in 1763 removed any requirement of protection for the colonists, perhaps in some way leading them to believe that the British weren’t needed. Of course, the French loved a good rebellion, remember theirs was only 13 years away, and they jumped in with both feet on the side of the colonists, bringing to the party their allies, the Dutch and the Spanish. After secretly supplying the colonists with supplies and weapons from 1776 they became openly involved in 1778 and Britain soon had to defend her territories from concerted attacks by the French, Dutch and Spanish, and this included the very real threat of invasion of Britain itself.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull, 1797

By 1782 the Americans and the French were beginning to gain the upper hand and the defeat of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown combined with the defeat of a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake led to wholesale loss of support for the war back in Britain, leading to the Prime Minister Lord North’s resignation and the Commons voting to end the war. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November, 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris and Treaties of Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783, and the United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the Paris treaty on January 14, 1784.

So Britain lost its colonies, and while I’ve really narrowed down the actual events leading to this I did come across some facts that perhaps you didn’t know about the American War of Independence.

  • Along with the Colonies, Britain also lost Menorca (yes that Menorca where we Brits love going on holiday) in the Mediterranean.
  • At its height Britain had up to 30000 Germans fighting on its side.
  • With the French army entering the war to assist America, there were 29,000 Frenchmen fighting against the British, as against the 11,000 Americans.
  • Supposedly during the conflict the Royal Navy had a force of 171,000 sailors, of which 42,000 deserted.
  • Approximately 13,000 Native Americans fought on the British side.
  • France was the first country to recognize the United States, Morocco the second!
  • The first submarine attack in the history of world took place during the American Revolutionary war. The submarine, ‘Turtle’ was assigned the task of attacking a ship, ‘Eagle’ of the British navy. Unfortunately, the submarine could not complete its mission.
  • In 1779, the number of soldiers fighting for the cause of American independence were less than the loyalists – who supported the British force. As opposed to 3,468 people fighting for independence, the loyalists were 6,500 to 8,000 in number.
  • General Thomas Gage, in command of British forces in North America when the rebellion started, was criticized for being too lenient (perhaps influenced by his American wife).
  • At the start of the war a large number of British Commanders declined to take part including: General Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst who turned down an appointment as commander in chief due to an unwillingness to take sides in the conflict. Similarly, Admiral Augustus Keppel turned down a command, saying “I cannot draw the sword in such a cause.” The Earl of Effingham very publicly resigned his commission when his 22nd Regiment of foot was posted to America, and William Howe and John Burgoyne were both members of parliament who opposed military solutions to the American rebellion. Howe and Henry Clinton both made statements that they were not willing participants in the war, but were following orders.

Benjamin West’s famous painting of the American delegations at the Treaty of Paris. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

And there you have it, a very short and concise version of the American War of Independence, so while the Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th it is worth remembering that the events leading to that independence really started today, 236 years ago.

Some further online reading if you are interested:


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