The Early Battles of the American Revolutionary War

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

A glance inside the early battles and victories of the American Revolutionary War—from victory to retreat and from deadlock to diplomacy.

A Flying Grand Union Flag, which was the flag of the early American Revolutionary War.
The Grand Union Flag of the early American Revolutionary War had a British Union Jack at the top, symbolizing a future peaceful reunion with the British Empire.
(Image: Thomas Dutour/Shutterstock)

The Boston Impasse

If the British could not get out of Boston, then neither could the Americans get in. Washington had no big artillery with which to mount a full-fledged siege operation. It was not until March 1776 that Washington’s chief artillery officer, Henry Knox, another military ‘wanna-be’, was able to make use of the big siege guns that had been captured at Ticonderoga and mount them on the Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.

General Howe was at first inclined to stage an attack on the Dorchester Heights to destroy the guns. Howe, though, carried vivid memories of what had happened to men under his command at Bunker Hill the previous June.

The British had already decided to abandon Boston as soon as the weather permitted. On March 17, 1776, Howe marched his troops onto transports bound for Halifax and Nova Scotia, and Boston was Washington’s at last.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Minor Battles of the American Revolutionary War: Virginia and North Carolina

In January, the tiny loyalist army of Virginia’s royal governor—John Murray, Lord Dunmore—was defeated in a minor battle at Great Bridge near Norfolk, Virginia. The next month, another tiny loyalist army gathered by the last royal governor of North Carolina—Josiah Martin—surrendered after a sharp little fight at Moore’s Creek. In June, Charleston, South Carolina, beat back an attempt by the Royal Navy to land troops there.

For the moment, America was in the hands of Americans, but the American triumph was short-lived. In December 1775, Richard Montgomery’s expedition with the Northern Army to Quebec collapsed in dismal failure, with Montgomery himself the principal casualty.

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The British Recovery

Using Halifax as his base to refit and regroup, Major General Howe staged a succession of well-planned strikes along the North American coast. Beginning at New York, he appeared without warning. He was on Long Island in August 1776 before most Americans could have even anticipated it. Although Washington had guessed that this would be Howe’s move, Washington had too few troops to cover all the possible approaches to New York City. He might as well have saved himself the effort, though.

A painting depicting the American soldiers in the Battle of Long Island.
The British won the battle of Long Island and recovered some lost ground after their initial losses in the American Revolutionary War. (Image: Domenick D’Andrea/Public domain)

Howe landed at Gravesend Bay on Long Island on August 22, and on August 27, 1776, he struck the Continental Army, driving the Continentals off Long Island at the point of the bayonet. After occupying New York City, Howe then proceeded to drive Washington westward across New Jersey and across the Delaware River until the onset of winter shut the campaigning down.

Washington, however, redeemed his army’s tattered morale through a daring raid on the British outpost at Trenton, New Jersey. He attacked the Hessians of that outpost as they were celebrating Christmas, and then won a larger battle at Princeton on January 3, 1777.

By the following spring, Major General Howe was on the move. Once again using the strength of his Royal Navy, Howe packed his troops onto transports and moved them to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, where he would be in a position to threaten the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

A painting of the aftermath of the battle of Trenton.
George Washington redeemed his army’s tattered
morale at the battle of Trenton. (Image: Hugh Charles McBarron, Jr. (1902-1992)/Public domain)

Once more, Washington was compelled to play catch-up to Howe’s strategy. He only barely succeeded in interposing the Continental Army between Howe and Philadelphia at the Battle of the Brandywine in September 1777. Like the Battle of Long Island the summer before, Washington was out-maneuvered and driven from the field. Philadelphia fell to Howe’s army, and the Continental Congress scampered for safety further inland to York and to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In October, at the Battle of Germantown, Washington made one more defiant bid to drive Howe away from Philadelphia. However, poor communications and poor planning sabotaged the American assault, and Washington was left with no alternative but to retreat that December to a hungry and freezing winter encampment at Valley Forge.

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The Shortcomings of British Government

Despite these successes, the British government insisted on remaining its own worst enemy. The British government’s plan for the summer campaigns of 1777 had envisioned a three-part invasion of New York, not a campaign against Philadelphia. Howe was to have moved north from New York.

A second British Army under General John Burgoyne was to have struck south from Canada, and a third force was to move eastward from Niagara under General Barry St. Leger, with all of them to enjoy a victorious union at Albany, cutting off all of New England from the rest of the colonies.

A painting depicting the surrender of General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga.
General Burgoyne and his 5,700 British and Hessian troops were forced to surrender at the battle of Saratoga during the American Revolutionary War. (Image: John Trumbull/Public domain)

That summer, however, General Howe followed his own inclinations and set off, not for Albany, but for the Chesapeake Bay and Philadelphia. General St. Leger was stopped by the New York militia at Fort Stanwix in western New York in August. General Burgoyne along with 5,700 British and Hessian troops were surrounded and forced to surrender at Saratoga, New York, on October 17. This winning northern army was operating under the command of the Continental Army’s Adjutant General Horatio Gates.

The defeats at Fort Stanwix and at Saratoga were not critical for the British; at any rate, they were more than over-balanced by Howe’s capture of the American capital at Philadelphia. The British failure to clinch a complete victory, however, opened space for diplomatic opportunities where their military superiority might not have had the same leverage.

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The Diplomatic Battles Amid the American Revolutionary War

As aggressive a campaigner as William Howe was, he was also convinced that Britain was too overextended to support a prolonged war in North America against any kind of determined American resistance. In fact, as early as August 1776, Howe had put out a feeler to Washington about peace negotiations.

In September, Howe and his brother—Admiral Richard Howe of the Royal Navy—sent a captured American general to Philadelphia to persuade the Continental Congress that the Howe brothers were empowered to offer terms for ending the war. Congress responded by sending a three-man delegation, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to meet with the Howe brothers on Staten Island.

The talks foundered, mainly because of the unwillingness of Franklin and Adams to negotiate on American independence. After Saratoga, another peace initiative was floated by the British. This time, they offered to set everything in British American relations back to 1763—before the Stamp Act—just as though the previous decade had never happened.

To the Americans, these offers looked less enticing and more like signs of weakness on the part of the British. They only convinced the Americans to press forward more confidently for alliances in Europe. The most obvious starting point for such an alliance was France, which was still smarting from its defeat in the Seven Years’ War.

As early as the spring of 1776, the French had loaned the Continental Congress one million lire through a phony trading company, in order to avoid diplomatic consequences.

But it was not until the victory at Saratoga that the French were persuaded that the British could really be defeated in the American Revolutionary War.

That winter, the French openly signed a treaty of amity and commerce that guaranteed French protection for American liberty, sovereignty, and independence. The treaty put economic credits at the disposal of the United States. But more importantly, France’s army counted 150,000 officers and men—20,000 of which could be made available to join the Continental Army in North America—while the French navy could distract the stranglehold the Royal Navy was imposing on the American coastline.

The Continental Army also received one other gift that year, a new flag. Through most of the early campaigns of the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army had fought under a flag that expressed a kind of pious hope for reconciliation with Britain.

This so-called Grand Union Flag sported 13 red and white stripes to symbolize the united colonies, but it also contained a small British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner. The Union of the Flag symbolized what was supposed to be America’s continuing desire for recognition and reconciliation with the empire.

By the summer of 1777, this notion was laughably obsolete. On June 14, Congress adopted a new flag pattern. The 13 red and white stripes remained, but the British Union Jack in the upper left corner was replaced with a new union, a blue field with 13 stars, to symbolize that a new constellation had appeared in the heavens.

The flag of the United States, the Stars and Stripes, had been born. From this point, the fortunes of American independence would go nowhere but up, and the war, which had been Sir William Howe’s to lose, now became George Washington’s to win.

Common Questions About the Early Battles of the American Revolutionary War

Q: What was the most important battle in the American Revolution?

The Battle of Saratoga was a crucial victory for the patriots during the American Revolution. It is also considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War by many experts.

Q: How many people died in the American Revolution?

According to the estimates, 6,800 Americans were killed in the action, 6,100 wounded, and upward of 20,000 were taken prisoner during the Revolutionary War.

Q: Which state had the most Revolutionary War battles?

According to the historians, over 200 American Revolutionary War battles were fought within the state of South Carolina, more than in any other state.

Q: Why was the Continental Army successful?

The Continental Army was successful because they were fighting for a great cause, their independence and freedom, which was indeed a very motivating factor.

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