The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the thirteen "United Colonies" which expelled royal officials in 1775, set up the Second Continental Congress, formed an army, and declared their independence as a new nation, the United States of America, in 1776. The war was the culmination of the political American Revolution, whereby the colonists overthrew British rule. By 1778 major European powers had joined against Britain. American Indians fought for both British and American sides.
Throughout the war, the British were able to use their naval superiority to capture and occupy coastal cities, but control of the countryside (where 90% of the population lived) largely eluded them. After an American victory at Saratoga in 1777, France, with Spain and the Netherlands as its allies, entered the war against Britain. French involvement proved decisive, with a French naval victory in the Chesapeake leading to the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the war and recognized the sovereignty of the United States over the territory bounded by what is now Canada to the North, Florida to the South, and the Mississippi River to the west.
Armies, militias, and mercenaries
Colonists were divided over which side to support. The Revolutionaries (known as "Americans", "Whigs," "Congress-Men" or "Patriots") had the active support of about 40 to 45 percent of the population. About 15 to 20 percent of the population supported the British Crown after 1775 and were known as Loyalists (or Tories). Loyalists fielded perhaps 50,000 men during the war years in support of the King. After the war, some 70,000 Loyalists departed the United States, most going to Britain, Nova Scotia or other British colonies.
When the war began, the Americans did not have a professional army or navy. Each colony provided for its own defenses through the use of local militia. Militiamen were lightly armed, slightly trained, and usually did not have uniforms. Their units served for only a few weeks or months at a time, were reluctant to go very far from home, and were thus generally unavailable for extended operations. Militia lacked the training and discipline of regular soldiers but were more numerous and could overwhelm regular troops as at the battles of Lexington, Bunker Hill, Bennington and Saratoga, and the siege of Boston. Both sides used partisan warfare but the Americans were particularly effective at suppressing Loyalist activity when British regulars were not in the area.
German troops serving with the British were called "Hessians." (C. Ziegler after Conrad Gessner, 1799)Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established (on paper) a regular army in June 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington used both his regulars and state militia throughout the war. About 250,000 men served as regulars or as militiamen for the Revolutionary cause in the eight years of the war, but there were never more than 90,000 total men under arms at one time. Armies were small by European standards of the era; the greatest number of men that Washington personally commanded in the field at any one time was fewer than 17,000. This could be attributed to tactical preferences, but it also could be because of lack of powder on the American side.
Early in 1775, the British Army consisted of about 36,000 men worldwide, but wartime recruitment steadily increased this number. Additionally, over the course of the war the British hired about 30,000 soldiers from German princes, these soldiers were called "Hessians" because many of them came from Hesse-Kassel. The troops were mercenaries in the sense of professionals who were hired out by their prince. Germans made up about one-third of the British troop strength in North America. By 1779, the number of British and German troops stationed in North America was over 60,000, though these were spread from Canada to Florida.
African-Americans and Indians
This 1780 drawing of American soldiers from the Yorktown campaign shows a black infantryman from the First Rhode Island Regiment.African-Americans—slave and free —served on both sides during the war. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation promising freedom to all slaves owned by Patriots who deserted and fought for the British; Sir Henry Clinton issued a similar edict in New York in 1779. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to the British lines; fewer than 1,000 served under arms. Many of the rest served as orderlies, mechanics, laborers, servants, scouts and guides. More than half died in smallpox epidemics that swept the British forces and many were driven out of the British lines when food ran low. Despite Dunmore's promises, the majority were not given their freedom.
Because of manpower shortages, Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. Small all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many were slaves promised freedom for serving. Another all-black unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 black soldiers fought for the Revolutionary cause.
Most American Indians east of the Mississippi River were affected by the war, and many communities were divided over the question of how to respond to the conflict. Most Native Americans opposed the United States, since native lands were threatened by expanding American settlement. An estimated 13,000 warriors fought on the British side; the largest group, the Iroquois Confederacy, fielded about 1,500 men.
War in the north, 1775–1777
Massachusetts Boston campaign
Before the war, Boston, had been the scene of much revolutionary activity, leading to the Massachusetts Government Act that ended home rule as a punishment in 1774. Popular resistance to these measures, however, compelled the newly appointed royal officials in Massachusetts to resign or to seek refuge in Boston. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, the British Commander-in-Chief, North America, commanded four regiments of British regulars (about 4,000 men) from his headquarters in Boston, but the countryside was in the hands of the Revolutionaries.
The British marching to Concord in April 1775On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord, Massachusetts. Riders including Paul Revere alerted the countryside, and when British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found 77 minutemen formed up on the village green. Shots were exchanged, killing several minutemen. The British moved on to Concord, where a detachment of three companies was engaged and routed at the North Bridge by a force of 500 minutemen. As the British retreated back to Boston, thousands of militiamen attacked them along the roads, inflicting great damage before timely British reinforcements prevented a total disaster. With the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the war had begun.
The militia converged on Boston, bottling up the British in the city. About 4,500 more British soldiers arrived by sea, and on June 17, 1775, British forces under General William Howe seized the Charlestown peninsula at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans fell back, but British losses were so heavy that the attack was not followed up. The siege was not broken, and Gage was soon replaced by Howe as the British commander-in-chief.
In July 1775, newly appointed General Washington arrived outside Boston to take charge of the colonial forces and to organize the Continental Army. Realizing his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. Arsenals were raided and some manufacturing was attempted; 90% of the supply (2 million pounds) was imported by the end of 1776, mostly from France.
The standoff continued throughout the fall and winter. In early March 1776, heavy cannons that the Patriots had captured at Fort Ticonderoga were placed on Dorchester Heights by General Henry Knox. Since the artillery now overlooked the British positions, Howe's situation was untenable, and the British evacuated the city on March 17, 1776, sailing to their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Washington then moved most of the Continental Army to fortify New York City.
Canada Invasion of Canada (1775)
During the long standoff at Boston, the Continental Congress sought a way to seize the initiative elsewhere. Congress had initially invited the French Canadians to join them as the fourteenth colony, but when that failed to happen, Congress authorized an invasion of Canada. The goal was to remove British rule from the primarily francophone province of Quebec (comprising present-day Quebec and Ontario).
Two Canada-bound expeditions were undertaken. On September 16, 1775, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen, capturing Montreal on November 13. General Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, escaped to Quebec City. The second expedition, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold, was a logistical nightmare, with many men succumbing to smallpox. By the time Arnold reached Quebec City in early November, he had but 600 of his original 1,100 men. Montgomery's force joined Arnold's, and they attacked Quebec City on December 31, but were soundly defeated by Carleton. The remaining Americans held on outside Quebec City until the spring of 1776, and then withdrew.
Another attempt was made by the Americans to push back towards Quebec, but they failed at Trois-Rivières on June 8, 1776. Carleton then launched his own invasion and defeated Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion of Canada had begun. The invasion of Canada ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold's efforts in 1776 delayed a full-scale British counteroffensive until the Saratoga campaign of 1777.
The invasion cost the Americans their base of support in British public opinion, "So that the violent measures towards America are freely adopted and countenanced by a majority of individuals of all ranks, professions, or occupations, in this country."
New York and New Jersey campaigns
Having withdrawn his army from Boston, General Howe now focused on capturing New York City. To defend the city, General Washington divided his 20,000 soldiers between Long Island and Manhattan. While British troops were assembling on Staten Island for the campaign, Washington had the newly issued Declaration of American Independence read to his men. No longer was there any possibility of compromise. On August 27, 1776, after landing about 22,000 men on Long Island, the British drove the Americans back to Brooklyn Heights in the largest battle of the entire Revolution. Howe then laid siege to fortifications there, but Washington managed to evacuate his army to Manhattan.
On September 15, Howe landed about 12,000 men on lower Manhattan, quickly taking control of New York City. The Americans withdrew to Harlem Heights, where they skirmished the next day but held their ground. When Howe moved to encircle Washington's army in October, the Americans again fell back, and a battle at White Plains was fought on October 28. Once more Washington retreated, and Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November, taking about 2,000 prisoners (with an additional 1,000 having been captured during the battle for Long Island). Thus began the infamous "prison ships" system the British maintained in New York for the remainder of the war, in which more American soldiers and sailors died of neglect than died in every battle of the entire war, combined.
Emanuel Leutze's stylized depiction of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) is an iconic image of heroic action by Washington.General Lord Cornwallis continued to chase Washington's army through New Jersey, until the Americans withdrew across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December. With the campaign at an apparent conclusion for the season, the British entered winter quarters. Although Howe had missed several opportunities to crush the diminishing American army, he had killed or captured over 5,000 Americans.
The outlook of the Continental Army was bleak. "These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine, who was with the army on the retreat. The army had dwindled to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty, and would be reduced to 1,400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Congress had abandoned Philadelphia in despair, although popular resistance to British occupation was growing in the countryside.
Washington decided to take the offensive, stealthily crossing the Delaware on Christmas night and capturing nearly 1,000 Hessians at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776. Cornwallis marched to retake Trenton but was outmaneuvered by Washington, who successfully attacked the British rearguard at Princeton on January 3, 1777. Washington then entered winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, having given a morale boost to the American cause. New Jersey militia continued to harass British and Hessian forces throughout the winter, forcing the British to retreat to their base in and around New York City.
At every stage the British strategy assumed a large base of Loyalist supporters who would rally to the King given some military support. In February 1776 Clinton took 2,000 men and a naval squadron to invade North Carolina, which he called off when he learned the Loyalists had been crushed at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge. In June he tried to seize Charleston, South Carolina, the leading port in the South, hoping for a simultaneous rising in South Carolina. It seemed a cheap way of waging the war but it failed as the naval force was defeated by the forts and because no local Loyalists attacked the town from behind. The loyalists were too poorly organized to be effective, but as late as 1781 senior officials in London, misled by Loyalist exiles, placed their confidence in their rising.
Saratoga and Philadelphia
When the British began to plan operations for 1777, they had two main armies in North America: Carleton's army in Canada, and Howe's army in New York. In London, Lord George Germain approved campaigns for these armies which, because of miscommunication, poor planning, and rivalries between commanders, did not work in conjunction. Although Howe successfully captured Philadelphia, the northern army was lost in a disastrous surrender at Saratoga. Both Carleton and Howe resigned after the 1777 campaign.
The first of the 1777 campaigns was an expedition from Canada led by General John Burgoyne. The goal was to seize the Lake Champlain and Hudson River corridor, effectively isolating New England from the rest of the American colonies. Burgoyne's invasion had two components: he would lead about 10,000 men along Lake Champlain towards Albany, New York, while a second column of about 2,000 men, led by Barry St. Leger, would move down the Mohawk River valley and link up with Burgoyne in Albany, New York.
Mohawk leader Joseph Brant led both American Indians and white Loyalists in battle.Burgoyne set off in June, and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. Thereafter, his march was slowed by Americans who knocked down trees in his path. A detachment was sent out to seize supplies but was decisively defeated by American militia in August, depriving Burgoyne of nearly 1,000 men.
Meanwhile, St. Leger—half of his force American Indians led by Joseph Brant—had laid siege to Fort Stanwix. American militiamen and their Indian allies marched to relieve the siege but were ambushed and scattered at the Battle of Oriskany. When a second relief expedition approached, this time led by Benedict Arnold, St. Leger broke off the siege and retreated to Canada.
Burgoyne's army was now reduced to about 6,000 men. Despite these setbacks, he determined to push on towards Albany—a fateful decision which would later produce much controversy. An American army of 8,000 men, commanded by the General Horatio Gates, had entrenched about 10 miles (16 km) south of Saratoga, New York. Burgoyne tried to outflank the Americans but was checked at the first battle of Saratoga in September. Burgoyne's situation was desperate, but he now hoped that help from Howe's army in New York City might be on the way. It was not: Howe had instead sailed away on an expedition to capture Philadelphia. American militiamen flocked to Gates's army, swelling his force to 11,000 by the beginning of October. After being badly beaten at the second battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17.
Saratoga was the turning point of the war. Revolutionary confidence and determination, suffering from Howe's successful occupation of Philadelphia, was renewed. More importantly, the victory encouraged France to enter the war against Britain. For the British, the war had now become much more complicated.
Meanwhile, having secured New York City in 1776, in 1777, General Howe concentrated on capturing Philadelphia, the seat of the Revolutionary government. He moved slowly, landing 15,000 troops in late August at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay. Washington positioned his 11,000 men between Howe and Philadelphia but was driven back at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The Continental Congress once again abandoned Philadelphia, and on September 26, Howe finally outmaneuvered Washington and marched into the city unopposed. Washington unsuccessfully attacked the British encampment in nearby Germantown in early October and then retreated to watch and wait.
Washington and Lafayette look over the troops at Valley Forge.After repelling a British attack at White Marsh, Washington and his army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, about 20 miles (32 km) from Philadelphia, where they stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a training program supervised by Baron von Steuben. Indeed, von Steuben introduced the most modern Prussian methods of organization and tactics.
General Clinton replacing Howe as British commander-in-chief. French entry into the war had changed British strategy, and Clinton abandoned Philadelphia in order to reinforce New York City, now vulnerable to French naval power. Washington shadowed Clinton on his withdrawal and forced the drawn battle at Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the last major battle in the north. Clinton's army went to New York City in July, just before a French fleet under Admiral d'Estaing arrived off the American coast. Washington's army returned to White Plains, New York, north of the city. Although both armies were back where they had been two years earlier, the nature of the war had now changed.
An international war, 1778–1783
In 1778, the rebellion in North America became an international war. After learning of the American victory at Saratoga, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with the United States on February 6, 1778. Spain entered the war as an ally of France in June 1779, a renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Unlike France, however, Spain initially refused to recognize the independence of the United States—Spain was not keen on encouraging similar anti-colonial rebellions in the Spanish Empire. The Netherlands also became a combatant in 1780. All three countries had quietly provided financial assistance to the Americans since the beginning of the war, hoping to dilute British power.
In London King George III gave up hope of subduing America by more armies. "It was a joke," he said, "to think of keeping Pennsylvania." There was no hope of ever recovering New England. But the King was determined "never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal." His plan was to keep the 30,000 men garrisoned in New York, Rhode Island, in Canada, and in Florida; other forces would attack the French and Spanish in the West Indies. To punish the Americans the King planned to destroy their coasting-trade, bombard their ports; sack and burn towns along the coast (like New London, Connecticut), and turn loose the Indians to attack civilians in frontier settlements. These operations, the King felt, would inspire the Loyalists; would splinter the Congress; and "would keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse" and they would beg to return to his authority. The plan meant destruction for the Loyalists and loyal Indians, and indefinite prolongation of a costly war, as well as the risk of disaster as the French and Spanish were assembling an armada to invade the British isles and seize London.
Widening of the naval war
Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War, France in the American Revolutionary War, Spain in the American Revolutionary War
When the war began, the British had overwhelming naval superiority over the American colonists. The Royal Navy had over 100 ships of the line, although this fleet was old and in poor condition, a situation which would be blamed on Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty. During the first three years of the war, the Royal Navy was primarily used to transport troops for land operations and to protect commercial shipping. The American colonists had no ships of the line, and relied extensively on privateering to harass British shipping. The Continental Congress authorized the creation of a small Continental Navy in October, 1775, which was primarily used for commerce raiding. John Paul Jones became the first great American naval hero, capturing HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters.
"The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar", 13 September 1782, by John Singleton Copley.French entry into the war meant that British naval superiority was now contested. The Franco-American alliance began poorly, however, with failed operations at Rhode Island in 1778 and Savannah, Georgia, in 1779. Part of the problem was that France and the United States had different military priorities: France hoped to capture British possessions in the West Indies before helping to secure American independence. While French financial assistance to the American war effort was already of critical importance, French military aid to the Americans would not show positive results until the arrival in July 1780 of a large force of soldiers led by the Comte de Rochambeau.
Spain entered the war with the goal of recapturing Gibraltar and Minorca, which had been lost to the British in 1704. Gibraltar was besieged for more than three years, but the British garrison there was resupplied after Admiral Sir George Rodney's victory in the "Moonlight Battle" in January, 1780. Further Franco-Spanish efforts to capture Gibraltar were unsuccessful. On February 5, 1782, Spanish and French forces captured Minorca, which Spain retained after the war.
West Indies and Gulf Coast campaigns
There was much action in the West Indies, with several islands changing hands, especially in the Lesser Antilles. Ultimately, at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, a victory by Rodney's fleet over the French Admiral de Grasse dashed the hopes of France and Spain to take Jamaica and other colonies from the British. On May 8, 1782, Count Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas. Nevertheless, except for the French retention of the small island of Tobago, sovereignty in the West Indies was returned to the status quo ante bellum in the 1783 peace treaty.
On the Gulf Coast, Gálvez seized three British Mississippi River outposts in 1779: Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Gálvez then captured Mobile in 1780 and forced the surrender of the British outpost at Pensacola in 1781. His actions led to Spain acquiring East and West Florida in the peace settlement.
India and the Netherlands
The Franco-British war spilled over into India in 1780, in the form of the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The two chief combatants were Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore and a key French ally, and the British government of Madras. The Anglo-Mysore conflict was bloody but inconclusive and ended in a draw in 1784.
In 1780, the British struck against the United Provinces of the Netherlands in order to preempt Dutch involvement in the League of Armed Neutrality, a declaration of several European powers that they would conduct neutral trade during the war. Britain was not willing to allow the Netherlands to openly give aid to the American rebels. Agitation by Dutch radicals and a friendly attitude towards the United States by the Dutch government—both influenced by the American Revolution—also encouraged the British to attack. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War lasted into 1784 and was disastrous to the Dutch mercantile economy.
Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War
During the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, the primary military encounters were in the north. After French entry into the war, the British turned their attention to the southern colonies, where they hoped to regain control by recruiting Loyalists. This southern strategy also had the advantage of keeping the Royal Navy closer to the Caribbean, where the British needed to defend their possessions against the French and Spanish.
The British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton who according to some accounts killed surrendered American prisoners; painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.On December 29, 1778, an expeditionary corps from Clinton's army in New York captured Savannah, Georgia. An attempt by French and American forces to retake Savannah failed on October 9, 1779. Clinton then besieged Charleston, capturing it on May 12, 1780. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South's biggest city and seaport, paving the way for what seemed like certain conquest of the South.
The remnants of the southern Continental Army began to withdraw to North Carolina but were pursued by Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who defeated them at the Waxhaws on May 29, 1780. With these events, organized American military activity in the region collapsed, though the war was carried on by partisans such as Francis Marion. Cornwallis took over British operations, while Horatio Gates arrived to command the American effort. On August 16, 1780, Gates was defeated at the Battle of Camden, setting the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.
Cornwallis' victories quickly turned, however. One wing of his army was utterly defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. Tarleton was decisively defeated at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, by American General Daniel Morgan.
General Nathanael Greene, Gates's replacement, proceeded to wear down the British in a series of battles, each of them tactically a victory for the British but giving no strategic advantage to the victors. Greene summed up his approach in a motto that would become famous: "We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." Unable to capture or destroy Greene's army, Cornwallis moved north to Virginia.
In March 1781, General Washington dispatched General Lafayette to defend Virginia. The young Frenchman skirmished with Cornwallis, avoiding a decisive battle while gathering reinforcements. Cornwallis was unable to trap Lafayette, and so he moved his forces to Yorktown, Virginia, in July so the Royal Navy could return his army to New York.
Western theater of the American Revolutionary War
George Rogers Clark's 180 mile (290 km) winter march led to the capture of General Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant-Governor of Canada.West of the Appalachian Mountains and along the Canadian border, the American Revolutionary War was an "Indian War." Most American Indians supported the British. Like the Iroquois Confederacy, tribes such as the Cherokees and the Shawnees split into factions.
The British supplied their native allies with muskets and gunpowder and advised raids against civilian settlements, especially in New York, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Joint Iroquois-Loyalist attacks in the Wyoming Valley and at Cherry Valley in 1778 provoked Washington to send the Sullivan Expedition into western New York during the summer of 1779. There was little fighting as Sullivan systematically destroyed the Indians' winter food supplies, forcing them to flee permanently to British bases in Canada and the Niagara Falls area.
In the Ohio Country and the Illinois Country, the Virginia frontiersman George Rogers Clark attempted to neutralize British influence among the Ohio tribes by capturing the outposts of Kaskaskia and Vincennes in the summer of 1778. When General Henry Hamilton, the British commander at Detroit, retook Vincennes, Clark returned in a surprise march in February 1779 and captured Hamilton himself.
In 1782 came the Gnadenhütten massacre, when Pennsylvania militiamen killed about a hundred neutral Indians. In August 1782, in one of the last major encounters of the war, a force of 200 Kentucky militia was defeated at the Battle of Blue Licks.
Yorktown and the war's end
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by (John Trumbull, 1797).The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. In early September, French naval forces defeated a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake, cutting off Cornwallis's escape. Washington hurriedly moved American and French troops from New York, and a combined Franco-American force of 17,000 men commenced the siege of Yorktown in early October. Cornwallis's position quickly became untenable, and he surrendered his army on October 19, 1781.
With the surrender at Yorktown King George lost control of Parliament to the peace party, and there were no further major military activities on land. The British had 30,000 garrison troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah. The war continued at sea between the British and the French fleets in the West Indies.
In London as political support for the war plummeted after Yorktown, Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November 30, 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and the United States Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783.
Britain negotiated the Paris peace treaty without consulting her Indian allies and ceded all American Indian territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States. Full of resentment, Native Americans reluctantly confirmed these land cessions with the United States in a series of treaties, but the fighting would be renewed in conflicts along the frontier in the coming years, the largest being the Northwest Indian War.
Costs of the War
The total loss of life resulting from the American Revolutionary War is unknown. As was typical in the wars of the era, disease claimed more lives than battle. Historian Joseph Ellis suggests that Washington's decision to have his troops inoculated against the smallpox epidemic was one of his most important decisions.
An estimated 25,000 American Revolutionaries died during active military service. About 8,000 of these deaths were in battle; the other 17,000 deaths were from disease, including about 8,000 who died while prisoners of war. The number of Revolutionaries seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000. The total American military casualty figure was therefore as high as 50,000.
About 171,000 seamen served for the British during the war; about 25 to 50 percent of them had been pressed into service. About 1,240 were killed in battle, while 18,500 died from disease. The greatest killer was scurvy, a disease known at the time to be easily preventable by issuing lemon juice to sailors. About 42,000 British seamen deserted during the war.
Approximately 1,200 Germans were killed in action and 6,354 died from illness or accident. About 16,000 of the remaining German troops returned home, but roughly 5,500 remained in the United States after the war for various reasons, many eventually becoming American citizens. No reliable statistics exist for the number of casualties among other groups, including Loyalists, British regulars, American Indians, French and Spanish troops, and civilians.
The British spent about £80 million and ended with a national debt of £250 million, which it easily financed at about £9.5 million a year in interest. The French spent 1.3 billion livres (about £56 million). Their total national debt was £187 million, which they could not easily finance; over half the French national revenue went to debt service in the 1780s. The debt crisis became a major enabling factor of the French Revolution as the government was unable to raise taxes without public approval. The United States spent $37 million at the national level plus $114 million by the states. This was mostly covered by loans from France and the Netherlands, loans from Americans, and issuance of more and more paper money (which became "not worth a continental.") The U.S. finally solved its debt problem in the 1790s.
 Historical assessment
Historians have often sought to explain why Britain lost a war which few at the time expected them to lose. Britain had several military advantages at the outset: vastly superior naval power, a professional military by the standards of the day, and far greater financial resources. Furthermore, the Americans often faced shortages of military supplies and had a traditional distrust of central government and standing armies which made the maintenance of a national military force extremely difficult.
On the other hand, the British had significant military disadvantages. Distance was a major problem: most troops and supplies had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The British usually had logistical problems whenever they operated away from port cities, while the Americans had local sources of manpower and food and were more familiar with (and acclimated to) the territory. Additionally, ocean travel meant that British communications were always about two months out of date: by the time British generals in America received their orders from London, the military situation had usually changed.
Suppressing a rebellion in America also posed other problems. Since the colonies covered a large area and had not been united before the war, there was no central area of strategic importance. In Europe, the capture of a capital often meant the end of a war; in America, when the British seized cities such as New York and Philadelphia, the war continued unabated. Furthermore, the large size of the colonies meant that the British lacked the manpower to control them by force. Once any area had been occupied, troops had to be kept there or the Revolutionaries would regain control, and these troops were thus unavailable for further offensive operations. The British had sufficient troops to defeat the Americans on the battlefield but not enough to simultaneously occupy the colonies. This manpower shortage became critical after French and Spanish entry into the war, because British troops had to be dispersed in several theaters, where previously they had been concentrated in America.
The British also had the difficult task of fighting the war while simultaneously retaining the allegiance of Loyalists. Loyalist support was important, since the goal of the war was to keep the colonies in the British Empire, but this imposed numerous military limitations. Early in the war, the Howe brothers served as peace commissioners while simultaneously conducting the war effort, a dual role which may have limited their effectiveness. Additionally, the British could have recruited more slaves and American Indians to fight the war, but this would have alienated many Loyalists, even more so than the controversial hiring of German mercenaries. The need to retain Loyalist allegiance also meant that the British were unable to use the harsh methods of suppressing rebellion they employed in Ireland and Scotland. Even with these limitations, many potentially neutral colonists were nonetheless driven into the ranks of the Revolutionaries because of the war.