The American Revolution 1778-1783
Copyright © 2010, 2020 Henry J. Sage

The Tide Begins to Turn: 1778

On February 6, 1778, France and America concluded an alliance by signing two treaties, a treaty of amity and commerce and a military alliance.  The nations exchanged ambassadors, and France and England were soon at war. Recognizing that the French alliance with the Americans might cause serious difficulties for the British, Parliament soon passed bills calling for reconciliation with America. They sent a peace commission to Philadelphia to attempt to find a settlement. As before, it was too little, too late; when the Americans adopted the Declaration of Independence, they had crossed the Rubicon; there was no turning back. The Americans refused to accept the commission and declared that any person who met with the commission would be branded an enemy of the United States. Congress responded that the only basis for reconciliation would be a full withdrawal of all British troops from American soil and recognition of American independence, conditions which parliament could not accept. The war would continue.

The Battle of Monmouth

In May Sir Henry Clinton replaced General Howe and, hearing that a French fleet was en route to America, decided to move his army back to New York.  The Americans reoccupied Philadelphia on June 18, and Washington decided to pursue the retreating British across New Jersey.  On June 28 Washington caught up with the British at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey.  General Charles Lee was in command of an advance unit with orders to attack at the first opportunity.  Orders to Generals Lafayette and Anthony Wayne became confused, and Lee precipitously ordered a retreat, which brought on a counterattack by Clinton. Washington soon arrived on the scene and, furious at Lee’s order for retreat, is said to have sworn so forcefully that the leaves shook on the trees.  Washington rallied his men, and with the discipline instilled by the training of Baron von Steuben, the Americans met the British squarely.  Although the outcome was indecisive, it was clear that the Americans had fought the British to a standstill.  Clinton withdrew and took his army back into New York, and Washington moved north of the city and settled into camp near White Plains, about twenty miles north of Manhattan. The war in the North thus remained a stalemate—with Clinton boxed in in New York, and  Washington holding the Hudson River line.


The majority of American Indians seem to have judged—correctly as it turned out—that an American victory in the Revolutionary War would probably lead to further trouble in the form of new encroachments on their lands.  A British victory would therefore be in their best interests—it was the British, after all, who had tried to confine the colonists to the territory east of the Appalachians.  The British, on their part, welcomed Indian allies in the West, but the outcome of the war and that alliance later hurt both the British and the Indians in their further struggles with the Americans.  The pro-British Iroquois under Joseph Brant did considerable damage to the Americans, but overall the Indian involvement in the war did the Native Americans more harm than good.

In 1778 the Wyoming Valley and Cherry Valley Massacres in Pennsylvania led by Loyalist Sir John Butler provoked a response from the Americans.  Indians swept through outlying settlements, terrorizing the people and killing forty survivors at Cherry Valley after they had surrendered.  Washington sent four thousand men under Generals Sullivan and Clinton to attack the Indians, and the American victories broke up the Six Nations.  In 1779 Colonel George Rogers Clarke’s expedition, commissioned by Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, against Colonel Henry Hamilton (the “hair buyer”) captured Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Like much of the fighting on the frontier, the combat was especially bloody and brutal; Clarke’s victories secured American claims to western lands and ended British control in the Northwest. Worthy of note:  The Northwest territory (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) could otherwise have wound up as part of Canada.


Considerable fighting occurred in the South early in the war, but it was mostly indecisive until 1778, while the focus was on the northern campaigns.  In 1779, with the results of fighting in the North failing to resolve the conflict, the British turned their attention to securing the South, where they felt strong loyalist support would aid them.  They took Savannah and later captured and burned Norfolk and Portsmouth.  (Norfolk was the most heavily damaged American city in the war.)  When the city of Charleston fell on May 12, 1780, a garrison of 5,400 Patriots surrendered, the worst defeat of the war for the Americans.

Meanwhile, on June 21, 1779, Spain declared war on Great Britain, though it refused to recognize American independence for fear of losing territory to the Americans.  (Spain’s fears were eventually played out after independence was secured.)  Although unsuccessful in gaining recognition from Spain, American Minister John Jay was able to borrow a small sum of money.  About the same time, Congress authorized John Adams to explore negotiations for a settlement of the war.  Aiding the American cause were the actions of naval hero John Paul Jones, who conducted raids along the coast of the British Isles and eventually defeated the HMS Serapis from his vessel, the Bonhomme Richard, named for Benjamin Franklin. Supported by the cavalry of Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a fierce and ruthless fighter, General Cornwallis routed an American army at Camden, South Carolina, on August 16, 1780.  Washington sent General Nathanael Greene to the South to replace General Gates, whose behavior on the battlefield at Camden had been grossly incompetent, as Cornwallis invaded North Carolina.  On October 7 a force of 1,100 loyalists were defeated at Kings Mountain by frontiersmen under Colonels Isaac Shelby and William Campbell.

1781:  The Final Showdown at Yorktown

With Greene now in command, the American forces, some elements commanded by Daniel Morgan, met and defeated Tarleton and Cornwallis at the Battle of Cowpens, where Greene used his militia to great advantage.  (A rough approximation of the Battle of Cowpens was depicted in the Mel Gibson film The Patriot.  The British colonel in the film was obviously based on Banastre Tarleton.) Following Cowpens, Cornwallis followed Daniel Morgan into North Carolina, and after Greene and Morgan combined forces they fought the British at Guilford Courthouse.  Although Cornwallis won the field, his losses weakened him and he had to retreat to Wilmington for reinforcements. Meanwhile, the United States Navy continued to give the British a bad time in one-on-one encounters. 

During the course of the war American privateers, privately owned vessels commissioned by Congress to conduct raids on British shipping, captured six hundred British ships.  Although the navy was not able to take on the British fleet and large-scale battles, American sailors captured or destroyed 196 British vessels during the course of the war.  In 1781 French fleets were operating in the Caribbean and off the American coast, a development that eventually meant defeat for Cornwallis. In order to protect his forces in North Carolina, Cornwallis decided to invade Virginia.  Benedict Arnold, now a British brigadier general, conducted a raid on the capital and almost captured Governor Thomas Jefferson.  Generals Lafayette and von Steuben, however, their regiments reinforced, forced Cornwallis to retreat to Yorktown, Virginia, where he hoped to be reinforced by forces from New York under Henry Clinton.

The Yorktown campaign was the culmination of cooperation between France and the young United States, without which the outcome of the revolution would certainly have been jeopardized. In the summer of 1781 Washington hoped to employ the French army under the Comte de Rochambeau, which had landed at Newport in 1780, in a joint expedition against New York City. Washington hoped to use the French West Indian fleet under the Comte de Grasse in the campaign as well. Meanwhile British troops in Virginia under Lord Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold, which had been gathered into a strength of about 7000, established a base at Yorktown where Cornwallis could maintain open communications with the British army in New York under General Clinton.

When Washington was informed that the French fleet would be available for operations in the Chesapeake area, and that Cornwallis was in Yorktown, he changed his objective from New York to Virginia. Washington began to march his army and Rochambeau's troops to Virginia, but at first he deployed his army in a manner that seemed to threaten New York to disguise his true intentions. While Washington and Rochambeau were marching southward, de Grasse's fleet arrived off Yorktown and fought a sharp battle with the Royal Navy under Admiral Thomas Graves, causing Graves to retreat toward New York.

Washington and Rochambeau's armies, which in combination heavily outnumbered the British, began the siege of Yorktown in late September, 1781. As Cornwallis shortened his lines, Washington's forces dug their way in closer and began pounding Cornwallis's Yorktown defenses with American and French heavy artillery. After an assault led by Colonel Alexander Hamilton had captured two strong points on the British line, and with the French rather than the Royal Navy off the coast, Cornwallis found himself in a hopeless position, and he opened negotiations with Washington. The formal terms of the surrender were signed, and on October 19, 1781, the British army laid down its arms. A week later General Clinton arrived with reinforcements for Cornwallis, but it was too late.

With the British having lost an entire army as well as having suffered defeats at sea to the French navy, Parliament decided not to prosecute the war any further and authorized the British government to begin to negotiate a settlement with the Americans. Lord North resigned, and peace talks began in Paris in April, 1782. American negotiators led by John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams negotiated a settlement that eventually led to the formal recognition of American independence with the Treaty of Paris. The victory at Yorktown had sealed the revolution once and for all and ended British rule in North America.

The Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781 effectively ended the American Revolution. Although the peace Treaty of Paris was not formally signed for two more years, the surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown “turned the world upside down.”

cornwallis surrenders

“General Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown.” Actually Cornwallis did not personally surrender to General Washington, being “indisposed,” but Washington took no offense. He merely asked that the surrender by Brigadier General O'Hara be addressed to his deputy, General Benjamin Lincoln. The British army laid down its arms before the French and American troops, and the American Revoutionary war was, for all practical purposes, over., though the treaty ending the conflict was not signed until 1783.

Courtesy of National Archives

Note: The final campaigns in the South were ugly and violentprisoners were slaughtered, the countryside ravished.  Colonel Tarleton’s tactics infuriated the Americans and made them more determined than ever to continue the struggle to the end.  Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot, while not completely accurate, especially in regard to the character based on Tarleton, does convey the bitterness of much of the fighting in the South.

The Paris Treaty of 1783 Ends the American Revolution

The British government now found the struggle too costly to continue and decided to settle for peace on American terms.  The American peace commission included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens.  Thomas Jefferson was also appointed but did not go to France. Although the American delegation had been directed by Congress to negotiate in coordination with the French, because of the complicated other issues involving Spain and other countries, the Americans settled with the British independently. French Minister Count Vergennes was not pleased, but recognized that the result was favorable to the Americans By playing France off against England, the Americans secured highly favorable terms:  American independence was recognized; all territory east of the Mississippi River between Canada and Florida was ceded to the United States; the Americans were granted joint navigation of the Mississippi River and the right to use fisheries off the Canadian coast; there was to be no lawful impediment to the collection of private debts on either side, and restitution was recommended for the loyalists; finally, the British were to withdraw from all outposts in the Northwest.  The Americans were successful for a variety of reasons, some purely fortuitous.  Some British, for example, were quite comfortable with American independence.  They also wanted good trade relations, they wanted to keep America outside the sphere of French influence, and they were still at war with much of Europe.

More on the Treaty

Other Issues of the American Revolution

Washington from time to time had great difficulty in keeping his troops from rebelling against the shoddy treatment the army was afforded because of inefficiencies in Congress.  On May 25, 1780, a near mutiny occurred in Washington’s headquarters over the issue of pay and general discontent.  In January 1781 an event known as the “mutiny of the Pennsylvania line” occurred and had to be put down forcefully. 

Washington's Newburgh Address. Following the war, with Washington’s army still encamped in Newburgh, a group of officers threatened to defy Congress if they did not receive promised pay and reimbursement for food and clothing.  Washington got wind of the movement and addressed the officers in person.  Having difficulty reading his prepared remarks, Washington fumbled for his spectacles and said, “Gentlemen, I beg your pardon, but I have grown not only gray but blind in the service of my country.”  Moved by the image of Washington’s personal sacrifices, the officers withdrew their protests when Washington promised quick redress for their grievances.  Shortly after, Congress granted the officers of the army a generous settlement.  Washington’s actions are seen as setting a historic precedent for civilian control of the military.

American Diplomacy during the Revolution

American diplomacy during the war was quite effective.  France and Spain still hated Great Britain after the Seven Years’ War, and American agents Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and Benjamin Franklin used that fact  to advantage.  Franklin was most important—he was well known in Europe, an experienced diplomat, and an excellent propagandist.  Through Franklin’s efforts, France gave much to the American cause, but got little in return; having no particular friendship toward America, and certainly not interested in supporting policies that would threaten the French Crown, France acted in its own best interest, as nations generally do.  The Americans, of course, never said that George III did not have the right to rule; they merely said he did not have the right to rule them.

The Netherlands took advantage of the war to hijack British trade.  John Adams was sent as minister in 1780, where he secured formal recognition, concluded a treaty of amity and commerce, and was able to secure a substantial loan.

Government during the Revolutionary War

The Second Continental Congress was de facto the American government for most of the period of the American Revolution.  With no real executive and uncertain support from the thirteen states, the Congress operated with notorious inefficiency.  In its daily work the Congress functioned by committee (John Adams served on dozens), and it was hard to fix responsibility for any task anywhere.  Money was chronically short, and the states still thought of themselves as separate entities merely gathered for the conduct of the war.

Shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, however, John Dickinson headed a committee that began drafting a plan for association that eventually became the Articles of Confederation.  The articles were presented in July of that year and were debated for more than a year.  Congress eventually approved the articles in October 1777, and the articles were submitted to the states for ratification.

Because unanimous consent of all states was required for ratification, and because the states—which were engaged in a war of rebellion against what they saw as a tyrannical authority—were reluctant to take any action threatening their sovereignty, the articles were not ratified until March 1781.
Despite its shortcomings, the Continental Congress achieved much. They declared independence, successfully conducted the war, sent ambassadors to foreign nations and gained the powerful support of France, oversaw the negotiation of an extremely favorable treaty, and for better or worse kept the Revolution alive through some very dark days. It was government by committee, not always a good thing, but under the circumstances it was probably better than having a strong leader who would inevitably have caused resentment.

Loyalists in the Revolution

Many Americans had remained loyal because they feared that independence would bring chaos, and that there was no guarantee that the government they were going to get would be any better—if indeed as good—as the one they were giving up.  (One famous Loyalist motto went, “I would rather have one tyrant 3000 miles away than 3000 tyrants one mile away.”) The loyalists thought that independence would threaten the liberties for which other Americans were fighting.  They were poorly treated on both sides. The English did not trust them, and the Americans confiscated their property and even imprisoned, punished, or executed them.  By the time the war was over, more than 100,000 loyalists had left the United States, many for Canada and some back to England, bitter at their treatment.  Most of them were never reimbursed for their losses despite agreements made in the Treaty, and most of them never returned.

Women and the Revolution

Beginning with the policy of nonimportation and the wearing of homespun clothing as a patriotic gesture, many American women had entered the political arena as contributors if not actual participants.  Women in the 18th century had no reason to expect that they might become more politically liberated, for with the exception of  monarchs such as Elizabeth the Great and Queen Anne, not to mention Catherine the Great of Russia, who reigned at that time, women had generally been excluded from European politics for centuries.  But American women, who were often fairly well read and literate, were conscious of ideas of republicanism and democracy and began to develop the hope that those enlightened ideas might alter their state.

Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “remember the ladies” as the men of the Second Continental Congress plotted their Revolution.  Although Adams, who loved and admired his wife as his most faithful counselor, treated her remarks lightly, he was probably sympathetic; but one revolution at a time was more than plenty to handle.

The Revolution did not directly address the issue of women’s rights in any way (nor did it take note of the institution of slavery beyond the fact that the British offered freedom to slaves who would fight against the Americans, a promise they kept).  The growth of republican ideas offered the possibility of substantial change once the American nation found its proper form of government.  We will discuss the idea of republican motherhood in the women’s rights movement in due course, but it should be noted that women did participate in significant ways during the war itself.

The famous “Molly Pitcher,” so called because of her carrying water for the soldiers, helped man the guns in time of need.  Women accompanying the army carried out various logistics functions, from assisting with preparation of food, to caring for clothing and uniforms, to tending to the wounded.  Following the war, Washington himself recognized the many contributions of women to the Patriot cause, symbolized to an extent by the presence of Martha Washington in the American camp during the difficult winter at Valley Forge.

It is also worth noting that the first full history of the American Revolution was written by a woman, Mercy Otis Warren, the sister of James Otis, who had protested the Writs of Assistance in 1761.  Mercy Warren was a good friend of Abigail Adams, and both women and many others were fully tuned to the political realities, not only of the Revolution but also of the challenges facing the nation once the war was over.  Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution The National Period:  1783–1789 was published in 1805 and is still available in paper and hardcover editions.

American Revolution Home | The Federal Period: 1783-1801 | Updated May 22, 2020