Before the first shots were fired in the American War of Independence, very few people gave the Americans (also known as the ‘colonists’ or ‘patriots’) a chance. Britain had a population of 11 million compared to the patriots 2.5 million of whom 20% were slaves. Furthermore Britain had the most powerful navy in the world, an experienced and well-armed standing army of 48,000 men and the support of tens of thousands of loyalists and Indian tribes. Britain also held the economic advantage as they could rely on the profits from the South Atlantic system and the industrial revolution.
So at the beginning of the war, an American victory seemed distinctly unlikely for American forces weak and British military and naval power enormous by comparison.[i]
Foreign aid obtained by the colonists was extremely important in their victory. In 1776 France extended a secret loan to the colonies and supplied them with gunpowder. These loans of gunpowder were extremely important in enabling the patriots to defeat Britain in the Battle of Saratoga.
In February 1778 France and America signed The Treaty of Alliance that stated once France entered the war against Britain, there would be no more treaties before the colonists gained liberty, sovereignty and independence.[ii] The treaty also opened both nations ports to the others commerce and guaranteed French possessions in the New World. Therefore this alliance was very important as it brought optimism and boosted the morale of the patriots. As one soldier from Pennsylvania said, “There has been a great change in this state since the news from France”.
France gave money, supplies and in the last phase of the war, military force. France supplied most of the muskets, bayonets and canons used by the colonists and without French aid it is debatable if they could have won the war. For example at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, 20 French war ships prevented Cornwallis’ escape and led to the surrender of the British force and the end of the war.
Furthermore France’s participation in the war and Vergennes’ (French foreign minister) influence was a big factor in persuading other countries to join the American war effort. In 1779 and 1780, both Spain and Holland respectively entered against Great Britain and soon after Catherine of Russia organised the League of Armed Neutrality which when threatened by Britain in the early 1780’s, responded by deterring British trade.
So foreign aid was a very important factor in America’s victory as it is probable that they did not have the power to defeat the British on their own.
The logistics of the war was a second major reason for the American’s victory. Britain encountered many logistical problems in the war which all contributed in some way to its defeat. Howe thought that driving the American army from the battlefield in any area would return that area to loyalty to the crown or at least neutrality. However this was not the case. Britain was only able to control areas that the military occupied so therefore when the army moved it had to abandon the area it previously occupied. As a result when a British force was defeated its only hope was to retreat to a fortified port and so if the navy was not there with its usual overwhelming power, the army would be in serious trouble, as exemplified with the Battle of Yorktown.
Another logistical problem was that the British army could not expect supplies from any area it did not occupy and also the areas Britain did occupy were too small to provision the British army.[iii] Therefore they had to be dependent on supplies from Britain but even this was often a major problem as the obtaining of these supplies was held up administratively. The British Treasury and Admiralty did not co-operate with each other to make provisioning efficient or effective. For example in 1776 Admiralty agents insisted that army suppliers be licensed and applications accompanied by exact cargo manifests. Therefore, as ships were loaded at Cork and applications made in London, voyages could be delayed for weeks and sometimes months and as a result hampered the British war effort.
Britain also suffered a number of transport problems that further complicated proceedings. In October and November 1775, 36 supply ships loaded with hundreds of tons of food and supplies left Britain to make sure the 11,000 soldiers, sailors and marines in Boston would have a comfortable winter. However the ships witnessed some of the worst storms of the century and many sunk, were captured or fled towards the West Indies. In the end only 13 supply ships reached Boston by which time most of the food had gone bad.[iv] So therefore transport problems are another logistical problem that contributed to Britain’s defeat.
Food that did reach America created another problem for the British, as there were no good means to store or distribute the food. Therefore the food often sat on the ships holding them up when they could have been used for battle or getting more supplies.
Logistical problems also hit the British army directly as they could only operate freely as long as the supplies they could carry lasted. Therefore they had to move as soon as they ran out of supplies, even if it was not militarily expedient. So as the army was always moving it could not force an American army to battle, which created a big advantage for the colonists as they could decide when to fight.[v]
So overall Britain had to deal with many distribution and communication problems and despite having more supplies than the enemy, because of the above problems this proved to be no advantage.
A third major reason for the patriot’s victory revolved around the military strategy of both sides. On three notable occasions Britain made terrible mistakes in battle that contributed massively to their overall defeat. At the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, Britain went against all accepted military practice by attacking American forces on Breeds Hill, having to go up a steep and grassy hill in the open carrying sixty pound packs whilst the colonists were under cover. Of three British attacks, the colonists won two and Britain suffered a 50% loss of soldiers and didn’t make another offensive for fourteen months. On top of this, the battle seriously strengthened American morale and gave Washington over a year to build an army and prepare for the next battle. [vi]
At the Battle of Long Island in 1776 Britain made a massive strategic error of not exploiting their success. The British army had marched unexpected straight into the rear of the colonists and quickly forced a retreat. Britain had thousands of fresh troops available and had the momentum but allowed the colonists to escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan by boat. Therefore Britain lost their best chance of destroying the Continental army, capturing Washington and winning the war.[vii]
The final major military mistake by Britain was in 1777 when General Howe’s plan to attack Philadelphia instead of going to Albany to help Burgoyne backfired when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia. Therefore Burgoyne had to send further supplies and troops to support Howe instead of using them on his way to Albany. Howe underestimated the colonist’s ability to evade the British and made a massive mistake because Burgoyne needed those troops, supplies and Howe’s help at the Battle of Saratoga.
In complete contrast, the colonists displayed some excellent tactics and strategies at vital times that proved extremely important in their victory in the war. During the collective battles known as the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, at Fort Stanwix Britain were at first in control. However the patriots sent Hon Yost Schuyler to the fort and he promoted a superstition that caused the Indians to desert the fort and as a result caused the British to retreat to Oswego and abandon their siege. Therefore the great tactics at Fort Stanwix proved vital as the British were previously in a great position in the battle.
At Bennington, the patriots played another great trick sending men disguised as loyalists to mingle with British troops. They went to the rear of the British army and when the patriots attacked they turned against the British. So again the great tactics shown by the Americans provided a massive victory and the British suffered huge casualties and loss of supplies that proved significant in the war.
A final example of the great tactics used by the patriots was at Freemans Farm, when American riflemen forced a retreat in the first British assault after shooting from the tops of trees and then in the second assault caused huge losses to Burgoynes army after being situated on a low hill.[viii] This battle carried extra significance as the victory brought an American alliance with France, which as explained before was crucial in the outcome of the war.
However, whilst discussing military strategy it is also important to acknowledge the role played by the terrain as a factor for America’s victory. Britain found it difficult to cope with the many rivers and poor roads that they encountered and there were no large open fields where the cavalry could manoeuvre. It was rare to see Britain using whole regiments and disciplined fire across open ground. The territory thus prevented Britain from moving rapidly to surround rebels and from making the most of their superior discipline in formal lines of battle. So therefore Americans benefited from their own familiar terrain. As they did not have the fire discipline or military expertise and skills to fight formal battles, it was suited to their guerrilla warfare type battle techniques.
Washington was also crucial to the shape and outcome of the war. By 1777 Washington had fought Howe five times and lost every one, however Washington never lost his army.[ix] He was a big stabilising force and from his militia experience, was excellent at managing an army and keeping it together. As a Southerner, Washington was also vital in bringing southern support into a war that originally was being fought mainly by New Englanders.
However most importantly Washington’s tactics on two notable occasions were massive factors in the outcome of the war. First in 1776 at the Battle of Long Island, whilst in serious trouble, Washington enabled an escape for the colonists from Brooklyn to Manhattan by boat. In doing this, Washington prevented Britain’s best chance of winning the war.
Secondly in Virginia in October 1781, Washington was influential in leading five thousand French and two thousand American troops across Pennsylvania into Virginia. Washington moved them so fast that Britain didn’t even know of the Yorktown attack until it was too late. This piece of military mastermind by Washington soon led to a British surrender and subsequently signalled the end of the war.
The fourth and possibly final major reason for the American’s victory revolved around the contrasting motivation and passion of the two sides. The patriots were always willing to continue fighting because they had a strong desire to win their independence and loved their homeland. On the other hand British soldiers were not fighting for a cause that directly affected them as they were in a country almost three thousand miles from home. Therefore as the war continued patriot fervour increased whereas British morale went down.
In the colonies, the desire to fight the British was never in question. Before the outbreak of war Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ was able to sway public sentiment in favour of complete independence and against King George’s tyranny. During the revolution Paine continued to stir up enthusiasm and patriotism in America with ‘The Crisis’ with comments such as, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph”.[x]
Therefore ‘The Crisis’ affected soldiers and civilians in all levels of society, increasing morale, confidence and belief. Paine marched with troops, understood them and kept them fighting under horrible circumstances. Thus, Paine played an important role in the patriot’s victory.
Propaganda also played a big role in influencing public opinion. Anti-British cartoons were popular throughout the colonies and influenced the public. The inhumane treatment of American prisoners was a main topic of propaganda and there were many newspapers detailing atrocities by the British; for example, the fact that more prisoners of war died than were killed in action. Therefore the use of propaganda was very influential and turned many loyalists against the British.
So overall in conclusion, I have identified four major reasons why the Americans won the War of Independence. Foreign aid from France was vital through their money, supplies and military force. France also helped bring Spain and Holland into the war and without them the colonists would have found it difficult to win. Secondly, Britain suffered many logistical problems including the obtaining and distributing of supplies and also communication problems. With regards to military strategy, Britain made a number of strategic errors and struggled to come to terms with the difficult terrain, whereas the colonists under the influential command of Washington made some excellent tactical decisions in battle. Finally the Americans displayed great motivation and passion to secure victory and independence and never lost their desire to fight. In contrast British soldiers were not directly affected whatever the result of war and this proved crucial.
[i] Bonwick, Colin. The American Revolution (Macmillan, 1991) 86
[ii] Henretta, James. America: A Concise History (St. Martin’s, 1999) 147
[iii] Bowler, Arthur. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America: 1775-1783 (Princeton, 1975) 239
[iv] Perret, Geoffrey. A Country Made by War (Vintage Books, 1990) 20
[v] Heller, Charles. America’s First Battles: 1776-1965 (Lawrence, 1986) 24
[vi] Perret, 15
[vii] Heller, 31
[viii] Perret, 42
[ix] Leckie, Robert. The Wars of America (Harper & Row, 1981) 179
[x] Perret, 34
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard College, 1967
Bonwick, Colin. The American Revolution. Macmillan, 1991
Bowler, Arthur. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America: 1775-1783. Princeton, 1975
Conway, Stephen. The War of American Independence 1775-1783. Arnold, 1995
Heller, Charles. America’s First Battles 1776-1965. Lawrence, 1986
Henretta, James. America: A Concise History. St. Martin’s, 1999
Leckie, Robert. The Wars of America. Harper & Row, 1981
Perret, Geoffrey. A Country Made by War. Vintage Books, 1990