The Early War in New England and the Mid-Atlantic
Inquire: What Do the Colonists Have that Will Allow Them to Overcome the British Military Superiority?
New England – in and around Boston – was host to many of the early conflicts in the Revolutionary War. General Gage and the main British forces were there. Even before there was a declaration, even before Washington had arrived to take control of the collection of militias and minutemen who comprised “the Colonial Army,” colonists in New England took a stand against the British forces. They fought the famous Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill; it went well for the Colonials and badly for the British. Eventually, Revolutionary battles would go both ways, but as the war continued, new truths about war started revealing themselves. These truths suggested that thirteen start-up colonies could win a war against the greatest military power of all times — despite their paucity of formal military training, despite being poorly equipped, and despite how few years had passed since they first settled the “New World.”
How can Washington win this war?
Watch: Can a Leader Lose Himself or Herself All the Way to Victory?
Read: “Revolution” - The Early Years (1775 - 1776)
Bunker… I Mean, Breed’s Hill
On the night of June 16, 1775, a detail of American troops acting under orders from Artemus Ward moved out of their camp carrying picks, shovels, and guns. They entrenched themselves on a rise located on Charleston Peninsula overlooking Boston. Their destination: Bunker Hill.
From this hill, the rebels could bombard the town and the British ships in Boston Harbor. But, Ward’s men misunderstood his orders. They went to Breed’s Hill by mistake and entrenched themselves there — closer to the British position.
Cannon for Breakfast
The next morning, the British were stunned to see Americans threatening them. British military custom demanded that the British attack the Americans, even though the Americans were in a superior position militarily (the Americans had soldiers and cannons pointing down on the British).
General Thomas Gage was the commander of the British forces and Major General William Howe oversaw the tactical decisions. It was Howe’s responsibility to take the American position. Major General Howe could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea; instead, he chose to march his troops uphill, perhaps believing the Americans would retreat in the face of a smashing, head-on attack.
Howe is Wrong
His Majesty’s ships opened fire on the Americans. Early in the afternoon, 28 barges of British soldiers crossed the Charles River and stormed the hills. The Americans waited until the British were within 15 paces and then unleashed a bloody fusillade. Scores of British troops were killed or wounded; the rest retreated down the hill.
Again, the British rushed the hill in a second wave. Again, they retreated, suffering a great number of casualties.
By the time the third wave of British charged the hill, the Americans were running low on ammunition. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The British eventually took the hill, but at a great cost. Of the 2,300 British soldiers who had gone through the ordeal, 1,054 were either killed or wounded.
G.W. Takes Command
On July 2, 1775, George Washington rode into Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the new American Army. He had a formidable task ahead of him. He needed to establish a Chain of Command and determine a course of action for a war — if there was a war.
In London, the news of Bunker Hill convinced King George III that the situation in the colonies had escalated into an organized uprising and must be treated as a foreign war. Accordingly, he issued a Proclamation of Rebellion. Meanwhile, the British forces in Boston found themselves in a terrible predicament, isolated in the city with no control over the countryside.
In the end, General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army since June 15, 1775, used the Fort Ticonderoga cannons to force the evacuation of the British from Boston. Washington had positioned these cannons on the hills overlooking both the fortified positions of the British and Boston Harbor, where the British supply ships were anchored. The British could not return fire on the colonial positions because they could not elevate their cannons. They realized that they were in an untenable position and withdrew from Boston.
This Means War
Howe needed a plan to defeat the colonial uprising. He believed in Loyalists’ support. “There are many inhabitants in every province well affected to Government, from whom no doubt we shall have assistance,” General Howe wrote. But, he hedged the Loyalists could not rally “until His Majesty’s armies have a clear superiority by a decisive victory.”
The general needed a showdown, but first, he needed supplies, reinforcements, and a scheme to suppress the rebels. On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated their troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia ending the nearly year-long siege.
Howe would win decisive victories later, but his assumption that the Loyalists would rally behind him was simply wrong.
Quebec, New York and New Jersey
In the early stages of the American Revolution, battles over Quebec, New York, and New Jersey played an important role in the war.
The invasion of Canada in 1775 was the first major military initiative by the newly formed Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The objective of the campaign was to gain military control of the British Province of Quebec and to persuade the French-speaking Canadians to support the revolution.
Forces under Major General Richard Montgomery captured Fort St. Johns, the main defensive point south of Montreal, in November 1775. British General Guy Carleton quickly abandoned Montreal, fleeing to Quebec City, and Montgomery took control of Montreal.
A simultaneous expedition left Cambridge, Massachusetts, under Benedict Arnold and traveled with great difficulty through the wilderness of Maine to Quebec City. This arduous trek left Arnold’s surviving troops starving and lacking in basic supplies and equipment. Montgomery joined Arnold outside of Quebec with an army much reduced in size due to expiring one-year enlistment terms.
In December 1775, Montgomery and Arnold’s combined forces were defeated at the Battle of Quebec. The battle was a disastrous defeat for the Patriots. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded. The Patriot forces were disorganized and weakened by smallpox by this point.
New York and New Jersey
In the summer of 1776, General William Howe and 30,000 British troops attacked and defeated General George Washington’s Continental forces in the Battle of Long Island. Howe was able to launch a surprise ambush from the rear by coming through the little known and lightly guarded Jamaica Pass. Washington skillfully managed a narrow escape, retreating across the East River to Manhattan Island. In September, General Howe landed about 12,000 men in lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City.
The loss of New York strengthened Loyalist sentiment in the region. Continental troops’ spirits sagged and popular support for the war wavered. Washington’s army was shrinking; fewer than 5,000 men were fit for duty, and more reductions loomed as enlistments expired at the end of the year.
News of the capture of New York and the recovery of Quebec, suggested to British leaders that the war could soon be won. Britain maintained control of New York City until the war ended in 1783, using it as a base for operations elsewhere in North America. However, in mid-December, Washington sought to regain control in the region with an offensive in New Jersey; he planned a two-pronged attack on an outpost in Trenton, and a third diversionary attack in Bordentown.
On the evening of December 25, 1776, Washington led 2,400 of his men across the treacherous Delaware River to ambush Hessian soldiers guarding the British fort at Trenton. The German soldiers were completely caught off guard and the Continental Army quickly triumphed at the Battle of Trenton, killing or capturing nearly 1,000 Hessians which increased Patriot morale and recruitment.
The victory also drew General Charles Cornwallis from New York. Cornwallis reassembled an army of more than 6,000 men and marched against a position Washington held south of Trenton. He stationed a garrison of 1,200 at Princeton and unsuccessfully attacked Washington and his men on January 2nd; he was repulsed three times before nightfall.
That night, Washington stealthily moved his troops again, in order to attack the garrison Cornwallis left at Princeton. The British lost more than a quarter of their forces in the battle and convinced General Howe to withdraw most of his army from New Jersey; only outposts in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy remained. Though the Americans suffered significant casualties and lost important supplies, Washington retained the core of his army and successfully wrested most of the state from the British.
Washington began the war trusting in traditional European warfare tactics, but as the war progressed, he became convinced that the strength of his forces and potential for victory lay in the unconventional. He attacked during the winter when traditionally, armies rested; moved large numbers of men very quietly at night, both in attacks and in retreats, by wrapping wagon wheels in rags, while leaving sentries and fires burning to give the appearance of no changes; and relied on small strikes and almost guerrilla tactics instead of full-on, large army confrontations.
The British were critical of and belittled Washington for his lack of discipline, military acumen, and even honor — right up until they surrendered and Washington’s brilliance became clear. Washington determined that due to the American strengths of geography and population, this would simply be a war of attrition the British could not win, and the only way for him to lose the war was to try to win it. No matter how many cities the British occupied, his army would continue fighting in the countryside. The vastness of the American colonies meant British control of the cities or any one area would be insufficient to achieve overall victory. Further, the British supply lines for troops and necessities went all the way back to England. Washington’s went just to the next house. Essentially, the longer Washington kept the army in the field, the more optimistic, supportive, and willing to be involved the colonials became, and the more frustrated the British became. British losses mounted, and the will of the British people to fight this way waned. Like Ali and his “rope-a-dope,” Washington crept along a passive approach to victory. He knew the actual outcome of each battle was inconsequential because each battle left the British more diminished.
Reflect: Honor or Results?
In all of human history, a repetitive question arises over and again. If there is an accepted way of performing and/or behaving in a conflict or competition, and you choose to violate those norms, but are successful, are you just doing what is necessary or are you to be shunned for violating honor and fair play, hopefully to be punished later?
A football coach who unnecessarily runs up the score in a game that is already won is considered unsportsmanlike and criticized, but he may be rewarded if his team receives more votes in the college rankings. In “The Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali employed a very unconventional strategy and was criticized for not just sighting Foreman. But, he won — and if he had taken on Foreman with conventional style and strategy, he easily could have lost.
Expand: The Revolution on the Home Front
“There’s No ’Normal’ Life, Wyatt, It’s Just Life. Get On With It!” (Doc Holiday – Tombstone)
Most Americans did not actively participate in the Revolution. Instead, they were trying to live some semblance of a normal life — though, “normal” might seem impossible with a revolution raging around you. Normal is relative. A normal life for a child in China is not necessarily normal for a child in the U.S., and neither of those lives may resemble what is normal for a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mankind has a unique ability to function and survive in very non-normal times. During the Revolution, the definition of a normal life radically changed for most of the people living in the Thirteen Colonies. Instead of focusing on normal, they focused on life. As such, no study of the war would be complete without an examination of the home front.
During the war years, those Americans not involved in warfare were doing their best just trying to survive. Farmers continued to grow food, artisans continued to practice their trades, and merchants attempted to maintain their businesses. Despite efforts to go about business as usual, however, the entire social landscape changed.
War disrupts economies and brings tremendous population dislocations — the colonies were not exempt from these outcomes. Woe came to families or farmers who found themselves in the way of advancing armies. Despite stringent warnings against such behavior from officers on both sides, farms and homes were often plundered. Soldiers took grain, livestock, or whatever goods they needed. If citizens were thought to be colluding with the American military, the British often responded punitively. At times, a vindictive British army burned the homes of revolutionary firebrands or officers.
The Economic Consequences
As the British entered major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, many people fled to the countryside, looking for food and work. Traditional markets were disrupted. Farmers who one week sold their wares to their usual American customers might be selling to an occupying British army the next week.
The British Blockade caused widespread unemployment. Almost anyone dependent on the foreign market was out of work, from shippers to merchants. Both armies were sometimes followed by men and women willing to work in any way for a hot meal. The Colonial economy was in shambles.
Some farmers and merchants hoped to profit from increased prices due to scarcity. Many sold their wares to the British army. Violence sometimes came in the wake of rising prices, and the Continental Congress enacted regulations to counter inflation throughout the colonies.
Busting the Blockade
The Americans responded to the British Blockade with the time-honored practice of privateering. American privateering activity during the American Revolution became an industry born of necessity that encouraged private citizens to harass British shipping. Though they were risking their lives and resources, they were drawn in by the potential for financial gain.
Commissioned merchant ships, with an authorised Letter of Marque, could arm their vessels and attack any enemy ship that they encountered. When these privateers captured an enemy ship (known as a prize), an Admiralty prize court had to first approve the seizure. Then, the proceeds from the sale of the prize and its cargo were shared among the government, ship owners, and crew of the privateer according to a pre-arranged contract. Without a government commission, these same activities were considered acts of piracy and subject to prosecution. Non-commissioned seizure of good on the open sea is pirating, government commissioned seizure is privateering.
During the American Revolution, nearly 800 vessels were commissioned as privateers, by comparison, the Continental Navy contained fewer than 70 ships. Privateers are credited with capturing or destroying about 600 British ships. Vessels of every size and description were pressed into service as privateers. At the upper end of the scale was the 600-ton, 26-gun ship Caesar of Boston. At the other end was the 8-ton boat Defense of Falmouth, Massachusetts. Crews ranged from a few men in a whaleboat to more than 200 aboard a large, fully equipped privateer. Two-masted schooners and brigantines were most often used in privateering, reflecting the kind of vessels available to American seamen.
Many privateers were captured or sunk by British ships. In spite of all the risks and hazards, the overall effort to cripple Britain’s commercial fleet was highly effective, and fortunes destined to finance the new republic were made. It is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million by the end of the war, or just over $302 million in today’s dollars.*
Check Your Knowledge
Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.
0 of 3 questions completed Questions: You have already completed the quiz before. Hence you can not start it again. Quiz is loading… You must sign in or sign up to start the quiz. You must first complete the following: 0 of 3 questions answered correctly Your time: Time has elapsed You have reached 0 of 0 point(s), (0) Earned Point(s): 0 of 0, (0) Which battle were both Major General Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold defeated at after invading Canada with Colonial forces? Which General was repulsed three times by Colonial forces south of Trenton? Major General Richard Montgomery were badly defeated at the Battle of Montreal.
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Which battle were both Major General Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold defeated at after invading Canada with Colonial forces?
Which General was repulsed three times by Colonial forces south of Trenton?
Major General Richard Montgomery were badly defeated at the Battle of Montreal.
Additional Resources and Readings
A transcript of Stanley Weintraub’s interview with NPR about his book on the British view of the American Revolution
The Battle of Lexington | The American Revolution (Video: 2:39)
A video explaining the Battle of Lexington
The Winter Soldiers – Washington’s Crossing the Delaware (Video: 16:41)
A re-enactment of Washington crossing the Delaware
- Breed’s Hilla hill in Charlestown that was the site of the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775
- British Blockadea prolonged naval operation conducted by the Allied Powers during and after World War I in an effort to restrict the maritime supply of goods to the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey
- Bunker HillThe first great battle of the Revolutionary War; it was fought near Boston in June 1775
- chain of commandan official hierarchy of authority that dictates who is in charge of whom and of whom permission must be asked
- Charles Rivera river in eastern Massachusetts that empties into Boston Harbor and that separates Cambridge from Boston
- colludingcome to a secret understanding for a harmful purpose; conspire
- declarationa formal or explicit statement or announcement
- economic consequencesThe effect that an event, policy change, or market trend will have on economic factors such as interest rates, consumer confidence, stock market activity, or unemployment
- home frontthe civilian population and activities of a nation whose armed forces are engaged in war abroad
- homespunsimple and unsophisticated
- Proclamation of Rebellionofficially titled A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, was the response of George III of Great Britain to the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill at the outset of the American Revolutionary War
- spiesa person who secretly collects and reports information on the activities, movements, and plans of an enemy or competitor
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds, J.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY SA
Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0
|Battle of Long Island||Domenick D’Andrea||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Battle of Bunker Hill||E. Percy Moran||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|William Howe 1777||Richard Purcell aka Charles Corbutt||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton||John Trumbull||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Battle of Long Island||Alonzo Chappel||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Washington Crossing the Delaware||Emanuel Leutze||via Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Old house in Concord Massachusetts||t3xt (talk)||Wikipedia||Public Domain|