America's First Civil War

(The War for Independence 1775-1782)

Following the Declaration of Independence the American colonies were plunged into two wars: a war for independence and a civil war amongst the colonists, the latter was characterized by exceptional brutality and venom. It was common practice for loyalists and rebels to hack each other's families to pieces, cut babies out of wombs with bayonets and write on the walls with their blood.

Loyalists - opposed independence - strongest in New York, New Jersey, Georgia and the central Carolinas - also included Native Americans, French Canadians and slaves (Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, promised emancipation for all slaves supporting the British cause. In all 20,000 slaves escaped to serve as laborers and soldiers in the British armed forces) - 20% to 40% of the population depending upon the region

Patriots - supported independence - strongest in New England and Virginia - 40% to 60% of the population - by the war's end the Patriot forces consisted of 220,000 males aged 16-45 (drafted or enlisted). The British forces consisted of 111,000 from Great Britain, 21,000 Loyalists and 20,000 Hessians (from Germany).

neutrals - approximately 1/3 of the population did not want to be involved on either side.

Winning the War

The Colonies and Great Britain faced different but equally severe problems.


A. Peacetime budget cuts after the French and Indian War weakened British seapower making it very difficult to supply the army ( third of a ton of food per soldier per year had to be shipped from Great Britain).

B. Britain's national debt doubled putting a heavy burden upon its taxpayers.

C. The war was unpopular with the British public who were opposed to waging war against British colonists.

D. The British Army was outnumbered and fighting in hostile territory.

E. France, Holland and Spain declared war on Britain.


A. Britain's 11 million people greatly outnumbered 2.5 million colonists, one third of whom were either slaves or Loyalists.

B. Early in the war the Continental Army (Washington's colonial army) had no experienced officers, its soldiers were poorly trained and disorganized. Washington suffered a string of heartbreaking defeats.

C. Guerilla tactics and avoiding major battles could not bring victory.

D. The American currency (called the "Continental") was worthless.

E. In order to win, the Continental Army did not have to defeat the British Army but had to prolong the rebellion until Britain's taxpayers and anti-war politicians became tired of the war.

F. Britain had a small but very well-trained army with a reputation for discipline and bravery under fire. American victory depended upon the ability of George Washington to keep his army together despite repeated defeats at the hands of the British.

G. Massive French military and financial support was the decisive factor in the American victory but the financial drain on the French government helped bring about the French Revolution in 1790.

George Washington's Continental Army had to learn to fight in the "European fashion" requiring skill in close-order drill. After advancing within musket range, opposing troops would stand upright and fire directly at each other until one line weakened. Soldiers needed discipline, training, and courage in order to stand their ground and face the oncoming bullets as comrades fell around them.The side with the most men left standing would then attack at a quick walk, with bayonets drawn, and drive off the surviving opponents.

Explain the importance of each of the following:

George Washington


Marquis de Lafayette


Trenton (Christmas, 1776)


Saratoga (1777)


Benedict Arnold


Valley Forge (Winter, 1777)


Freidrich von Steuben


Joseph Brandt (leader of the Iroquois-Mohawks )


Charles Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton


Battle of Yorktown (1781) - British General Cornwallis' army of 6,000 was surrounded and bombarded night and day for a month by 8,600 Americans of Washington's Continental Army, 7,800 French soldiers plus the French navy.


The Treaty of Paris (1782) - confirmed American independence and set boundaries for the new nation but said nothing about protecting the rights of Native Americans. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay were the American representatives at the signing of the treaty.


American Independence carried a heavy price - at least 5% of free white males had died during the war (the equivalent of 2.6 million today) and four important issues remained unsettled.

A. What kind of society would be created ?

B. What sort of government should be established ?

C. How to create a stable economy ?

C. What would be the fate of the Loyalists ?

The Winners:

The revolution led to a lessening of class differences (egalitarianism) among white property-owning males.

The Losers:

African-Americans , white women, Native Americans and Loyalists.

a) Free blacks and slaves (500,000 - 1/3 of the total population) and women actually lost rights once the war ended. "Free persons of colour" faced a future of destitution and second-class citizenship. They found few whites willing to hire them or pay equal wages. Most free blacks remained poor laborers or tenant farmers.

b) As British citizens colonial women were allowed to own property, but after the Revolution American women who married became the property of their husbands. Their lives were characterized by almost constant pregnancy and child rearing. Only New Jersey had allowed women to own property and vote but they (along with free blacks) lost those rights in 1807.

c) Many Native American communities had been either destroyed or displaced (the Native American population east of the Mississippi had declined by 50%) and more white settlers began to move into tribal lands.

c) Loyalists - During the war Patriots and Loyalists committed unspeakable atrocities against each other. After the war, violence against Loyalists (and others who were accused of not showing enough enthusiasm for the Revolution) increased and tens of thousands fled the country and became the founders of Canada.