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American Revolutionary War

1775–1783

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Synopsis

Though it began as a civil war between Great Britain and her North American colonies, the American Revolutionary War ended as a global conflict which redrew the map of North America. Though the British Americans had spent nearly a century fighting fiercely to expand Britain’s empire, the relationship between the Americans and the Crown changed once France abandoned her empire North American empire in 1763. Without the looming threat of French attack, the American colonies were no longer dependent on Britain’s protection. This sense independence was bolstered when the Crown issued ordinances protecting Indigenous lands and guaranteeing French Canadian rights, at the expense of American territorial and commercial expansion. When Britain levied taxes to pay for colonial defence, American resentment exploded into open rebellion.

Starting in April of 1775, at the battles of Lexington and Concord, a rag tag army of regulars and patriotic militias took up arms against the British forces based in North America.

By July 4th of 1776, the Continental Congress agreed to form a new democratic nation: the United States of America.

Though the First Nations had no part in starting the war, they were soon consumed by the conflict. The Iroquois Confederacy was split into warring factions when the Tuscarora and Oneida decided to back the Americans, while the Mohawks, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca supported the British. Though the Americans achieved a few early victories, by the winter of 1776, the British occupied New York and seized the initiative.

Location

Eastern North America

Map north americaEastern North America
Conflict Category: International War

Combatants

United States of America

Flag for United States of America

A union of rebel British colonies, the United States of America were fighting for the freedom to govern themselves. As well as the freedom to expand into Indigenous territory without interference from the British Crown. Leading the fight for independence was George Washington, a man who earned his reputation fighting in the British Army.

vs.

Great Britain

Flag for Great Britain

Despite being the most powerful European empire of the 18th century, Great Britain faced a daunting fight to crush the American Revolution. Their opponents were highly motivated and many had seen combat in the Seven Years War. Even worse, the Americans were fighting on home ground against an army which performed poorly in woodland combat.

Allies

United States of America

  • Maliseet
  • Mi’kmaq
  • Flag for France France
  • Flag for Spain Spain
  • Flag for Netherlands Netherlands
  • Oneida
  • Tuscarora
  • Lenape
vs.
vs.

Great Britain

  • Mohawks
  • Seneca
  • Onandaga
  • Cayuga
  • Cherokee
  • Shawnee
  • Flag for Hannover Hannover
  • Flag for Hesse-Kassel Hesse-Kassel
Ar surrender of burgoyne

Pivotal Battle

The Battles of Saratoga — Sept 19 - Oct 7 1777
Sept 19 - Oct 7 1777

In the summer of 1777, Britain launched an invasion from Canada which pushed south into enemy territory. Commanded by General John Burgoyne, the British force swiftly captured Fort Ticonderoga from the Americans on July 5th. However, Burgoyne moved south so slowly that the Americans were able to regroup and send an army under Horatio Gates to intercept him. While their first clash, at Freemans Farm on September 19th, ended in a hard fought British victory, the second battle on Bemish Heights turned into a rout. An American officer named Benedict Arnold led a reckless sortie which threatened to expose the British camp to attack. Burgoyne quickly retreated but it was too late. On October 17th, Burgoyne was encircled and forced to surrender his army of over 6000 men into American captivity. The American victory not only ended the British invasion, but it was so decisive it convinced the Kingdom of France to join the war on the USA’s side. This vital alliance gave the American rebels the supplies and manpower they needed to defeat the British. France’s entry into the war was quickly followed by Spain and Netherlands, causing the conflict to spread beyond North America.

Aftermath

With France, Spain and Netherland’s support, the American rebels were able to systematically recapture much of the territory Britain had taken. In 1779, the American army sent Major General John Sullivan to devastate Haudenosaunee communities, with the objective of destroying their means of survival.

By 1781 American and French troops scored a significant victory at Yorktown which forced Britain to sue for peace. The peace treaty which was signed in 1783 drastically reshaped North America’s political borders and ethnic makeup.

Thousands of American Loyalist refugees and freed slaves who’d fought for the British, were forced to move north into British controlled Canada. The Mohawks, who’d inspired fear and hatred for their skills as guerrilla fighters, were also forced to abandon most of their traditional homeland and flee north where they settled on land provided by the in present day Ontario. France’s support of the USA would help bankrupt their nation, causing an economic crisis which provoked a popular uprising partly inspired by the American Revolution. This French Revolution would cause chaos and war in Europe for decades to come.

Notable Commanders

A young George Washington during the Seven Years War
A young George Washington during the Seven Years War

United States of America
George Washington

A brave soldier and charismatic leader, George Washington’s skill as a commander preserved the Continental Army through early defeats against the British. After retraining his army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777, Washington re-engaged the British with tremendous success. By 1781, Washington’s army and their French allies won a series of a compelling victories which forced the British to the bargaining table. Washington also masterminded Sullivan’s Expedition, which devastated the homeland of his Mohawk enemies.

Chief Thayendanegea, also known as Joseph Brant
Chief Thayendanegea, also known as Joseph Brant

Great Britain/Mohawks
Thayendanegea

Better known in history by the name Joseph Brant, Mohawk warchief Thayendanegea was one of the most influential Indigenous leaders of the late 18th century, as well as the first Indigenous person commissioned as officer in the British army. Thayendanegea’s military career began as a teenager in the Seven Years War, thanks to his sister Molly’s marriage to British diplomat William Johnson. Having received both Indigenous knowledge and a British style education, Thayendanegea convinced most of the Mohawks to support Great Britain during the war.

Key Weapons

Weapons are a central part of war. Explore the selections below to learn about the weapons used in this conflict.
Kentucky Rifle
Kentucky Rifle
Kentucky Rifle

Kentucky Rifle

This Pennsylvania designed rifle, with its trademark long, grooved barrel designed for accuracy, saw extensive use on the Kentucky frontier and during the American Revolution.

Ball Headed Club
Ball Headed Club
Ball Headed Club

Ball Headed Club

Carried by Haudenosaunee warriors for at least a century before Europeans arrived, the Ball Headed Club was used in combat as late as the War of 1812.

Charleville Musket
Charleville Musket
Charleville Musket

Charleville Musket

The standard weapon of the French army during the 1700s, it also saw extensive use with the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Land Pattern Musket
Land Pattern Musket
Land Pattern Musket

Land Pattern Musket

The weapon which forged the British Empire, this .75 calibre musket was nicknamed “the Brown Bess” by British infantry.

Tomahawk
Tomahawk
Tomahawk

Tomahawk

Despite being created in the 1600s, Tomahawks are still carried into battle by Canada’s special forces.

Gunstock War Club
Gunstock War Club
Gunstock War Club

Gunstock War Club

A fusion of traditional Indigenous club designs and European metalworking, the Gunstock war club was from 16th to the 19th centuries across most of North America.

Bow
Bow
Bow

Bow

The oldest weapon in mankind’s arsenal, even the arrival of firearms did not banish the bow from North American battles.

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