The Wars of the American Revolution

E. Wayne Carp
Pacific Lutheran University

One of the central myths that many Americans entertain about the Revolutionary War is that victory over the British redcoats was quick and easy. In this nationalist version of history, a united, freedom-loving people rose up in righteous anger at the King's tyrannical actions, grabbed their trusty flintlocks, hid behind trees and walls, defeated the dull British soldiers who were sitting ducks in their scarlet uniforms, and established the United States of America. Throughout the story, there is a certain inevitability about American victory.

This story raises many problems. If victory was so easy, why did it take eight and a half years for the Americans to win it? There is also the question of Valley Forge, which Americans have always interpreted as a parable of courage over adversity. But while one can admire Americans' fortitude, there is still the real question: why were Continental Army soldiers lacking clothing and shoes and starving to death in the middle of a prosperous country?

These questions and others have prompted modern historians to revise our understanding of the Revolutionary War. We now recognize that the war affected almost everyone in America. Of the ten wars that Americans have fought, only the Civil War saw more American military deaths per 10,000 citizens. And, except for the Vietnam War, the Revolution was the longest war Americans ever fought.

Historians also began to recognize that the American Revolutionary War was a complex event that belies a simplistic nationalist view. They now argue that the American Revolutionary War contained many different wars. It was, first, a war for national independence. Although this type of war is taken for granted by Americans today, it must be remembered that the Revolutionary War was the first in which colonies successfully rebelled against an imperial power. As a result, the American Revolution became an inspiration to other colonial peoples in the nineteenth century. This was especially true for Spanish-American liberators like Simon Bolivar who, in throwing off Spanish rule, looked to the example of the American Revolution.

Second, the American Revolutionary War was a civil war. Rather than a country united against the British, Americans were divided over whether the colonies should leave the British empire. We now know that in every part of the United States, but especially in the South after 1778 (when the British transferred its military operations to that region), Americans fought Americans. Sometimes, American family members fought each other, as fathers sided with the British and sons with the Americans (or visa versa). Historians now believe that forty percent of Americans were patriots; twenty percent were Loyalists, who supported the British; and forty percent were neutral, preferring to be left alone during the hostilities. Almost 18,000 Loyalists actually joined the British army and fought against Americans. These conflicts were often extremely violent and bitter, reminiscent of ethnic conflicts between Serbians and Bosnians today.

Third, the American Revolution was also a world war. With the American victory at Saratoga in 1778, France entered the war on the American side. The French wanted to avenge its defeat in 1763 at the hands of the British in the Seven Years' War. It had been secretly supplying the Americans with military supplies since 1775 awaiting an opportunity to side openly with the revolting Americans. By 1780, both Holland and Spain joined the French and Americans. (The Spanish, it is true, were a little hesitant to make war against another colonial power, but the possibility of destroying British trade hegemony was too powerful to resist. The Spanish monarchy would regret its decision in the nineteenth century when its own colonies would revolt citing the American example). With their seafaring fleets, America's European allies attacked British possessions in the West Indies, Africa, and India, thus spreading the war over the face of the globe.

Historians also stress the importance of the direct assistance that the European allies gave to the Americans in their victory over the British. It is probably not going too far to say that America owes its independence to foreign intervention and aid, especially from France. The French monarchy sent arms, clothing, and ammunition to America; it also sent soldiers and the French Navy. Most importantly, the French kept the United States government solvent by lending it the money to keep the Revolution alive. The magnitude of French support of the American Revolution can be glimpsed at the battle of Yorktown. There, the majority of George Washington's 15,000 man Continental Army were French soldiers. Washington's men were clothed by the French, the rifles they used were French, and French gold paid their wages. Nor must we forget that it was the French Navy that trapped Cornwallis's soldiers at Yorktown by preventing English ships sent from New York from rescuing the British army. Perhaps the final irony of the French monarchy's assistance to America (and proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished) is that it led to the financial collapse of the French ancien regime. And the bankruptcy of Louis XVI was one of the major causes of the French Revolution.

The importance of foreign intervention cannot be overemphasized. Many Americans assume that Yorktown ended the American Revolution. But technically, the British could have continued fighting. Ten thousand soldiers remained in New York City under General Clinton. Thousands more could have been sent from England. But just as America in 1973 made peace in Vietnam, the British in 1783 decided to make peace with America. It would do so for both political and military reasons. Attacked in Parliament and spread thin by attacks in all parts of its empire, the British ministry decided to cut its losses in America and grant independence to its former colony. It did so primarily in order to consolidate its own military forces and fight the French and Spanish. The British went on to defeat both European powers and preserve what would come to be called the Second British Empire.

Finally, the American Revolution was a war of ideas. The new nation which declared itself independent in 1776 was founded upon the "natural rights" philosophy of John Locke, the English political theorist and philosopher. Following ideas and values embedded in the Declaration of Independence, Americans went to war to defend the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that all men were created equal. Underlying this theory of natural rights was the contract theory of government that postulated that government was a voluntary agreement between a ruler and the people and that when the ruler violated that contract the people had the right of revolution. To launch a revolution, and fight a war for political principles was a new development in the world. Certainly, in the eighteenth century, Europeans fought wars for dynastic ambition or economic gain. The American Revolution's emphasis on self-rule and the right of revolution was a standing challenge to the existing European order that would not go unnoticed. The world of kings and lords, hierarchy and inequality, would never be the same again.


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