The Revolutionary War, also known as the War of American Independence, was long, demanding, vicious, and transforming. Between its outbreak at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, and the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 18, 1781, every place east of the Mississippi River saw armed conflict, save for the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw country that would shortly become the Old Southwest. The casualty rate was roughly 120 in 10,000, the second heaviest of any large-scale American war. It may be that the British did not deploy their full might in the hope of winning their errant American cousins back to loyalty, as some historians have argued. But wherever loyalist and patriot Americans faced one another, as in the Carolina backcountry or western New York, the carnage was fearful and atrocities were common. One way or another everybody within what became the United States took part in the conflict and felt its effects: whites; Natives; Africans; patriots; loyalists; neutrals; Northerners; Southerners; and backcountry folk, both men and women.
The first phase came in New England. By the war's outbreak the region's people were as ready as they could be for what they all knew would come, as David Hacket Fischer shows in Paul Revere's Ride (1994). They surrounded Boston with an impromptu army whose discipline rested on no more than consent and whose material survival depended entirely on good will. Yet the one major battle that the army fought, at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, demonstrated conclusively to the British that they faced a worthy enemy. George Washington took command of the army on July 3, 1775. Thereafter the two sides faced each other across siege lines, until the British withdrew from Boston on March 17, 1776. Washington used that time to begin turning his militia into “ a respectable army” of disciplined soldiers. Most of the “Continentals” whom he led until Yorktown were not patriot farmers who had sprung to arms to protect their families but rather young, single, lower-class men, the very sort who might have worn red coats on the other side.
The second phase of the war lasted from July 12, 1776 (when a major British fleet arrived in New York Harbor and prepared for invasion) until the end of 1778. The Americans lost New York City and its environs, not to regain them until the British departed on November 25, 1783. Washington nearly lost his whole army when better British tacticians trapped him in Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, but he retreated successfully to Manhattan Island and then to the New York State mainland and on into New Jersey. After evacuating the city (September 15), losing a battle at White Plains (October 28), and abandoning the garrisons at Forts Washington and Lee (November 16-18), Washington badly needed a victory. He achieved two, at Trenton (December 26) and Princeton (January 3).
The great event of 1777 was British general John Burgoyne's drive southward from Montreal, which ended in Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga (October 17) after one of the war's few set-piece battles. The French alliance that followed brought more troops, an ocean-going battle fleet, and material support to the American cause. During Burgoyne's campaign Washington attempted to defend Philadelphia against an invasion through Chesapeake Bay. He failed, and Sir William Howe spent a festive winter there while Washington's army was at Valley Forge. But Howe's strategy was bootless, and when Sir Henry Clinton replaced him as commander-in-chief he withdrew the army to New York, evacuating Philadelphia on June 18, 1778. Meanwhile irregular warfare raged from central New York and Pennsylvania to Illinois. That turned into a regular-army invasion in 1779 when American generals John Sullivan and James Clinton led forces that sacked the Iroquois countryside in Pennsylvania and western New York.
Recognizing, perhaps, that they faced a stalemate in the North, the British shifted their attention south. They captured Savannah on December 29, 1778, and fanned outward into the Georgia backcountry. On May 10, 1779, they burned Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. Then their southern strategy stalled, perhaps because Spain's alliance with France and the formation of the League of Armed Neutrality by Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Sicily threatened to make the conflict a world war. On May 12, 1780, however, the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, establishing a base for what they hoped would be pacification. That proved extremely difficult, though, since at Savannah, Portsmouth, and Norfolk, they had the willing cooperation of slaves who sought the king's freedom. British field commander Lord Cornwallis pushed into North Carolina, but he suffered a major defeat at Guilford on March 15, 1781, while guerrilla warfare continued all around. Continuing into Virginia, he trapped himself at Yorktown, when the French fleet closed Chesapeake Bay and the Continental and French armies moved rapidly southward to besiege him. His army's capture ended the British will to continue the struggle.
War was nothing new for colonials, but the Revolutionary War changed their world enormously, as a mere sketch of nonbattle developments shows. Fighting the war necessitated continental government and finance, which were the first steps toward creating a national polity and a national government. Organizing the war required hard work by politicians, functionaries, diplomats, and army officers. These men became the core of an emerging national class, which would create the United States in its present institutional form in 1787 and 1788. The war's economic pressures showed that colonial Americans' ideal of small economies that could be closed off in time of distress was outmoded. White loyalists lost large amounts of property to confiscation laws, and a greater percentage of them per capita fled than would emigrate from revolutionary France. Women who coped while their men were away developed political consciousness as well as pride in their own endurance of difficulty. Slavery began to break up in the North and it was weakened in the South. Native Americans fought on both sides, and some tried to stay neutral as well. At the war's end they all realized that they had a new power to confront, which was not friendly to their way of life. The destruction of the Iroquois Confederacy was a harbinger of what lay in store as “Indian country” started to become “the West.”
From independence onward one major theme in history-writing, in the visual and performing arts, and in popular hagiography has been to treat the Revolutionary War as a clean conflict in which one side was unquestionably good. The nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft gave that theme its fullest literary statement, conceptualizing the whole of American history, including the Revolution, around the theme of rising liberty. Painters Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull expressed the same idea with heroic paintings of battles, often centered on the figure of Washington, and of political events, and with their many patriotic portraits. By no means is that theme dead. The historical documentary on the Revolution that was televised in 1997 on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) affiliates told a patriotic story of which Bancroft would have approved.
But if the American side often has been conceived of as unquestionably good, somebody had to provide its evil opposition. The dominant answer has always had to be Britain, from Bancroft to PBS. From the start, however, conceiving of the British as the arch-enemy was complicated by residual Anglophilia and by the availability of Native Americans as alternative “villains.” John Vanderlyn's painting of the Death of Jane McCrea (1803) shows the complexities. McCrea was a loyalist woman who died during the British invasion of northern New York in 1777, probably at the hands of Indians on the British side. Wildly sensationalized news of what happened to her helped to generate the militia surge that provided General Gates with the force he needed to defeat Burgoyne. Vanderlyn's painting is equally sensational, with McCrea's gown ripped open and an unquestionable air of sexual threat in her outsized opponents. The issue of the British is entirely gone.
Whether Vanderlyn intended his painting to intervene in the Anglophile (Federalist) and Francophile (Jeffersonian) politics of his day is unclear. But when filmmaker John Ford conceptualized the Revolution in exactly the same way in Drums along the Mohawk (1939), the reference to contemporary politics could not be missed. Although derived from Walter D. Edmonds's novel of 1935, in which the British are strongly present and in which both sides are complex, the film presents an innocent frontier community that receives assault after assault by undifferentiated vicious “Indians.” In a thin reference to an actual loyalist but with iconography that is closer to Satanic, they are led by a mysterious one-eyed white man identified only as “Caldwell.” As in Vanderlyn's painting, what the Indians do is explained in natural and sexual terms. The Revolution's triumph and American society's future require not the eviction of the British but rather the Indians' complete defeat.
Early in the twentieth century, self-styled scientific historiography combined with a generally caustic attitude toward received American truths in the work of such Progressive scholars as Carl Becker and Charles A. Beard to transform understanding of the Revolution. Now it became a class conflict among (white, male) Americans who struggled, in Becker's words, over “who should rule at home.” For the most part these historians ignored the actual war, concentrating instead on the breakdown of British authority and on the construction of new power among Americans. As Michael Kammen shows in A Season of Youth (1978), artists who sympathized with that internal-revolution perspective were more free to use the war as their vehicle for discussion. Painter Grant Wood's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) offers mocking satire of one of the great iconic moments. Novelists Kenneth Roberts (Rabble in Arms, 1933) and Howard Fast (Unvanquished, 1946) wrote gritty realist fiction about ordinary soldiers. Until 1957 Fast was openly Communist, but Left-leaning politics were not required to take part in the project. Republican Party member Walter Edmonds's novel version of Drums along the Mohawk turned western New York into an American microcosm, probing the minds and the experiences of both sexes and all racial and social groups, not fully aligning the author's viewpoint with any of them.
Since World War II three successive themes have emerged in American Revolution scholarship. The first was consensus, a debunking of the Progressive “ de-bunkers” and a return to seeing the Revolution as the reaction of a united people to an essentially external problem. It was history worthy of the struggle against the Axis and Stalinism, though the theme should not be read as merely a tale for its own time. In his very popular synthesis The Birth of the Republic (1956), Edmund S. Morgan felt no need to use nouns that were any more descriptive than “Americans” and “Colonists” and conceptualized the Revolution as a “search for principles.” Elaborating that point, a powerful school including Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood emerged around Morgan that explored the transformation of language and understanding between the onset of the imperial crisis and the creation of the Republic. In Wood's handling, at least, there was considerable conflict, but its evidence was traced in ink rather than blood.
Partly in harmony with Wood, partly in reaction to what appeared to be bland consensus, and partly emanating from the turmoil of the civil rights and Vietnam eras, a third group of scholars returned to the problems of rebellion, conflict, and social experience, including the experience of war. Unlike most earlier scholars in the “conflict” tradition, writers including Gary B. Nash, Alfred F. Young, Colin Calloway, John Shy, and Mary Beth Norton have not confined their analysis to class. It is their probing of race, region, gender, and identity that invites the sweeping generalization made at the beginning of this article to the effect that the Revolutionary War touched everyone.
But artists have virtually ignored the issue, warned, perhaps, by the failure of Hugh Hudson's feature film Revolution (1986), which attempted to show the Revolutionary War from an ordinary man's viewpoint. Outside the academy, the Revolutionary War remains largely a matter of blue-coated patriots, red-coated oppressors, an impossibly virtuous American commander, and a villainous English king, as evidenced by the film The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson.
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