UNITED STATES HISTORY
The World Turned Upside Down
*While the Continental Congress was debating independence, the
British under General Sir William Howe planned to invade New York
and New Jersey with the help of his brother, Admiral Lord Richard
Howe. Together they had about 25,000 regulars and 10,000
sailors, the largest expeditionary force Britain would amass prior
to World War I. Washington was only able to muster about
19,000 soldiers, mostly militia.
*Among Howe’s soldiers were about 9,000 German mercenaries hired
through King George III’s connections with Germany as Elector of
Hanover. Because over half of them were from the state of
Hesse-Kassel (and some of the others were from Hesse-Hanau) all of
them were called Hessians by the Americans. They formed
highly trained and disciplined units, and as a whole they had a
reputation for cruelty.
*Despite the bravery of the Continental troops, they were forced
off Long Island and out of New York City, leaving America's second
largest city in British hands, where it would remain until
1783. However, Washington was able to keep his army
together, and prepared to fight another day, in part through
leaving large camp fires burning during a night escape so that the
British thought the retreating Americans were still in camp.
*During the fighting in and around New York, Washington needed a
spy to go behind British lines. However, spying was
considered dishonourable: one officer said ‘I am willing to
go and fight them, but as for going among them and being taken and
hung like a dog, I will not do it.’ Eventually Nathan Hale
of Connecticut agreed to do it and had some success making notes
in Latin about British troop numbers and movements until a
Loyalist recognised him as a rebel sympathiser and turned him in
with the suggestion that the British search his shoes. When
they did they found his notes, charged him with spying, and hanged
him. His last words were (according to tradition) ‘I regret
that I have but one life to lose for my country.’
*Washington eventually withdrew into Pennsylvania. Congress
itself abandoned Philadelphia. Washington’s army was down to
5,000 men, about a quarter the size it had been in the summer, and
many men’s enlistments were about to run out—most soldiers only
signed on for a few months or a year. As the year came to
its close, Washington expected to have an army of about 1,400 men
in the New Year.
*At this time, Thomas Paine began writing the series of pamphlets
he entitled The Crisis, beginning the first volume with
THESE are the times that try men's souls.
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this
crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that
stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
*The British had also moved into New Jersey, as had their Hessian
mercenaries, although as the weather worsened, General Howe moved
back to New York City, leaving New Jersey to his
*Encouraged by the success of several small raids against the
British and Hessians in New Jersey, and knowing that his men
outnumbered the Hessians in Trenton, Washington planned a daring
night attack across the Delaware River. He would cross on
Christmas night, hoping the catch the Hessians tired from their
Christmas celebrations at dawn on the 26th.
*Bad weather, including ice in the river, slowed their crossing,
and they did not arrive on the Jersey shore until 3 AM (instead of
Midnight). Some of Washington’s men did not manage to cross
at all due to the weather. However, a blizzard hid the
approach of Washington’s soldiers from the Hessians while local
patriots were able to guide Washington’s men to Trenton.
*The Hessians were caught off guard, although a sentry managed to
sound the alarm, and the Hessians were able to form a line that
provided some resistance. However, they were not able to
hold off the American forces, particularly as American artillery
began firing into their ranks--some of the artillery was commanded
by Alexander Hamilton, who had to keep his finger over the
touchhole of his cannon to keep it from freezing over.
Miscommunication led to the Hessians splitting their forces until
they finally fell apart as Colonel Rall was mortally wounded.
*22 Hessians were killed, 83 seriously wounded, and 896
captured. A few managed to escape because they were on the
far end of the town from where the attack began. Washington
only lost two men killed and five wounded (one of whom was
Lieutenant James Monroe, who was wounded in the shoulder and
nearly bled to death—he carried the bullet in his body for the
rest of his life), although many men died the next day of illness,
exposure, and exhaustion.
*Although this was not a large battle, and Washington crossed back
into Pennsylvania shortly afterwards, it offered a great lift to
American morale, encouraging re-enlistment and breaking the
Hessians’ reputation as unbeatable killing machines.
*The Battle of Princeton a week later was another small, but
important, American victory.
*After these victories, France, England’s traditional
foe--prompted by Benjamin Franklin who had recently arrived in
France and charmed the sophisticated people of Paris with his wit
and humour, as well as his fame as a writer, scientist, and
inventor--began to send some aid, in the form of money and
materiel, but not yet men or ships.
*Although Washington beat the British at Trenton and Princeton,
General Howe did not see these battles as significant losses, and
he planned a major invasion of the Hudson River Valley and an
attack on Philadelphia.
*Howe placed the conquest of New York under the command of
Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, who planned on moving from Quebec, down
Lake Champlain, to capture Albany and control the Hudson
River. Howe planned to capture Philadelphia himself,
whereafter he would march north to meet Burgoyne along the Hudson.
*Burgoyne sent out messengers, scouting parties, and raiding
parties meant to capture supplies, but many were captured or
killed. Soon Burgoyne was cut off and low on supplies.
*With Washington trying to defend Philadelphia, General Horatio
Gates was sent to New York to take command of the American
Army. He and Burgoyne began to manoeuvre around each other
in a series of battles known as the Saratoga Campaign.
*The great American hero, Benedict Arnold also played a decisive
role in leading American troops, and was badly wounded in battle,
but his contributions were not recognised by Congress.
*Following a series of defeats, Burgoyne retreated to the north,
but by the 13th was completely surrounded and on 17 October, 1777,
surrendered his entire army: about 6,000 men, most of whom
were kept in prison camps for years to come.
*One of the most important results of the battle was that it
helped Benjamin Franklin to convince the French, who had secretly
supported America for about a year, to openly form a perpetual
alliance with the United States in 1778 now that it was clear that
Americans could beat a major British army. In years to come,
Spain and the Netherlands would also declare war on Britain, and
the American Revolution would lead to warfare in Europe as
well. Even before that, in 1777, Morocco had become the
first country to recognise America as an independent
country. Because French help would be so important in
America’s eventually victory, Saratoga is often considered the
turning point of the Revolutionary War.
*While Burgoyne was invading New York, Howe was invading
Pennsylvania. Washington tried to stop him by manœuvring
between Howe and Philadelphia, and fought him at the Battle of
*The battle went badly for Washington, in part because his men,
while individually brave and effective in small units, lacked the
discipline and training to work together as a large force.
His men were forced to retreat, and the British pursued them until
*On 26 September, 1777, Howe captured Philadelphia, but Washington
did not surrender (contrary to Howe’s expectations, as typically
the capture of a nation’s capital brought a war to an end in the
*Washington did nearly lose his position, however, due to the
actions of a number of officers (including General Horatio Gates)
and members of Congress who thought Washington was an amateur and
were disappointed with his performance. This was not the
first time this had happened—General Charles Lee had written
letters to Congress late in 1776 trying to convince them to
replace Washington with himself. However, the Conway Cabal
was more serious.
*Named for General Thomas Conway (although he actually had a
relatively minor role in the affair), the Conway Cabal was a group
of officers and congressmen who plotted to replace Washington with
another officer, perhaps Horatio Gates (who had just won his great
victory at Saratoga).
*Eventually some of the instigators were found out and humiliated
and Washington was exonerated. One thing that saved
Washington was that an influential French nobleman serving in
Washington's army, the Marquis de Lafayette, expressed the view to
Congress that France viewed Washington and the American Cause as
inseparable, and Congress could not afford to offend France.
*Conspiracy was only one of Washington’s problems in the winter of
1777-1778. His men had gone into winter quarters at Valley
Forge, Pennsylvania. There his men built cabins to protect
themselves from the harsh winter, as about two thousand starved,
froze, or died of disease. The one benefit of the long
winter at Valley Forge was that during the winter the American
Army finally received professional training.
*Friedrich von Steuben had just arrived from Germany, where he
(falsely) claimed he had been a general in the Prussian Army and a
Baron in the German nobility. He developed the drill that
would be used by the US Army until the War of 1812 and trained
Washington’s soldiers in conventional warfare, particularly the
use of the bayonet, which the Americans had not used effectively
before (making them even more terrifying in the hands of the
*Another highlight of the winter at Valley Forge was the
announcement of the Alliance with France. This also changed
the British war strategy, as Britain felt the need to take a more
defensive stance. Howe also resigned from command in America
in 1778 and in May was replaced by Henry Clinton, who was told to
abandon Philadelphia and return to New York so his forces would
not be spread too far out.
*As Clinton retreated from Philadelphia, Washington made plans to
attack him, and did so at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey on 28
*After a bad start to the battle, Washington rallied fleeing
soldiers, stopped the British pursuit, and began to push them
back, in the first major use of the bayonet by American
*Although the British retreated during the night and made it to
New York, this battle proved the value of von Steuben’s training,
and the British army remained in New York for the rest of the
war. Although there was still fighting and intrigue in the
North, after 1778 the main action of the war shifted to the South.
*Nonetheless, both the British and Continental Armies kept large
forces in the North, mostly guarding New York City (either from
the inside or the outside), and during this long standoff, the
most infamous act of treachery in American history occurred.
*Benedict Arnold felt he never got the respect he deserved for his
victory at Ticonderoga and his vital role in the Saratoga
campaign. Furthermore, after Washington placed him in charge
of the city of Philadelphia in 1778, he met and married Peggy
Shippen (the daughter of a Loyalist), a woman famous for her
beauty and her expensive tastes who soon ran through Arnold’s
*In 1779, friends of Peggy put Arnold in touch with the British
high command. Soon Arnold was corresponding regularly with
Major John André, who had recently been placed in charge of the
British spy efforts. Arnold began providing information
about troop locations and movements. Eventually, André asked
for the plans for West Point, a major fort on the Hudson River.
*By late 1779, Philadelphia was being searched for Loyalists and
the Arnold and Shippen families were being harassed.
*In April, 1780, Benedict Arnold was offered the command of West
Point, which he accepted. Soon he was passing information to
the British again, eventually offering to sell the plans for West
Point to Clinton. He also started weakening West Point’s
defences, choosing not to repair weak points and leaving West
Point almost completely unguarded.
*Finally, Clinton offered Arnold £20,000 for the plans and Arnold
accepted. In September, 1780, André and Arnold met, and
Arnold wrote André a pass to get safely back to British
lines. However he was intercepted and recognised as a
British officer in civilian clothing.
*Arnold found out about André’s capture and escaped to British
lines, but André was tried and hanged. Arnold was made a
general in the British army, served against the Continental Army
on several occasions, and later retired to England.
*During the same time, the young American navy and the privateers
given letters of marque by Congress (and sometimes ships by the
French) were raiding British commerce and occasionally winning
dramatic victories over the Royal Navy.
*The most famous of these battles was won by John Paul Jones in
the Bonhomme Richard, a gift from the French, against HMS Serapis
on 23 September, 1779. Both ships were badly damaged,
and Bonhomme Richard was beginning to sink, when Jones's
chief gunner tried to surrender. Jones threw his pistols at
him, knocking him out. When the British captain asked if
Jones wanted to surrender, he said, 'I have not yet begun to
fight.' Eventually Jones won the battle, although his own
ship sank two days later and he sailed back to France with the
ships he had captured.
*Although the early phases of the American Revolution were
primarily fought in the North, there were a few battles in the
South as well, before the focus of the war turned that way in the
*On 28 June, 1776, Sir Henry Clinton led an attack on Charleston,
South Carolina. Charleston’s defence was led by William
Moultrie. He built a fort of palmetto trees and sand on
Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbour. The green palmetto
trees were soft and the cannonballs bounced off them, and the
British attack failed.
*In July, 1776, the British Indian Agent John Stuart encouraged
the Cherokee to attack the people of the Watauga Association, a
community along the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers that had
governed itself west of the Proclamation Line since 1772--making
them, according to Theodore Roosevelt, and first truly independent
government created on the American continent and, according to
Lord Dunmore, a dangerous example to the rest of America.
The Wataugans defended themselves by building forts in modern
Elizabethton and Bluff City and counter-attacking on the Long
Island of the Holston in modern Kingsport. The Wataugans
held off the attacks and petitioned North Carolina to be
recognised as the Washington District, and later Washington
County, in that state.
*After Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga and Clinton’s retreat from
Philadelphia, the British began to concentrate on the South.
For one thing, it was felt that there were more Loyalists in the
South who might support the British army if it moved into that
*On 29 December, 1778 a British force of 3,500 troops sent from
New York by Henry Clinton captured the city of Savannah, by far
the largest settlement in Georgia.
*On 11 April, 1780, Clinton laid siege to Charleston, which was
under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. A month
later, on 12 May, Lincoln was forced to surrender along with over
5,000 men—the worst defeat of the war for America, and the largest
surrender of American forces until the surrender of Bataan in
*Many of the prisoners were loaded on prison ships, on which as
many as three-fourths of the prisoners may have died. Among
those who died on Charleston’s prison ships was the mother of
Andrew Jackson, who had gone there to tend the sick and wounded
prisoners of war.
*Still, with the fall of Savannah and Charleston, Southern
Loyalists became much bolder in fighting back against the
Revolutionaries, and soon much of the South was embroiled in a
civil war, as loyalists and patriots attacked each other over the
issues of the war or used them as an excuse to settle old grudges.
*As most of the Loyalist and Patriots in Georgia and South
Carolina were not organised as part of a regular army, some of
them turned to guerrilla warfare. One of the most famous
guerrilla leaders was Francis Marion. In his youth he had
been a sailor in the Caribbean (until his schooner was sunk by a
whale), and he had fought against the Cherokee in the French and
*He was given a commission in 1776, and only escaped capture at
Charleston in 1780 because he was at home recuperating from a
broken ankle. When he recovered, he gathered what militia he
could and began a guerrilla war against the British. He
attacked small groups of soldiers and captured supplies, then
vanished into the woods and swamps of South Carolina, where the
British could not find him. Banastre Tarleton was among the
officers charged with hunting him down, but he had so little luck
that he said, ‘As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could
not catch him.’ Afterwards Marion was known as the Swamp
*After capturing two of the major port cities in the South,
Clinton returned to New York and left Cornwallis in charge of the
British forces in the Carolinas.
*On 16 August, 1780, veteran British forces defeated the largely
inexperienced Americans at the Battle of Camden. General
Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, was so demoralised by this
defeat that he outran his own army in the retreat, and kept going
for about three days and into the next state. Washington
replaced him with General Nathaniel Greene.
*Major Patrick Ferguson was given command of the western wing of
Cornwallis’s army, made up of well over 1,000 Loyalists, and told
to protect the rest of the army and hunt down the rebels.
Ferguson soon planned to lead an attack over the mountains to deal
with those men who had settled beyond the Proclamation Line. He
told them to join him, or he would march his army over the
mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste to the country with
fire and sword.
*From 26 September to 7 October 1780, militiamen from Southwest
Virginia and modern East Tennessee marched from Sycamore Shoals in
modern Elizabethton to Kings Mountain on the North Carolina/South
Carolina border. Ferguson swore that God Himself could not
get him off that mountain. However, in about an hour, about
900 frontiersmen defeated his force of about 1,100 Loyalists, and
shot (and buried) Ferguson on top of Kings Mountain.
*Another British defeat was at Cowpens, South Carolina, on 17
January, 1781, where by having the militia fire two shots and then
retreat and then using hidden reserves, American forces managed to
completely surround British forces and capture or kill almost all
of them, and they did so brutally, because the British were
commanded by Tarleton (who got away).
*After these defeats, Cornwallis had to turn back towards the
coast and Loyalists were much less willing to openly support the
Crown. Some consider Kings Mountain and Cowpens to be the
turning points of the war in the south, and credit them with
keeping the southern colonies independent.
*There were other battles in the south as the British General
Cornwallis manoeuvred with the American General Nathaniel Greene
throughout the Carolinas. In a series of marches across
North Carolina, Greene forced Cornwallis to burn most of his
supplies in order to be able to move fast enough to catch up with
*Ultimately Greene and Washington, who had finally come south
along with French troops under General Rochambeau, surrounded
Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Supported by the French
fleet under Admiral De Grasse, they defeated Cornwallis, who
surrendered on 19 October, 1781 while British musicians played a
tune called 'The World Turned upside Down.'
*This was the last major battle of the war in America, although
fighting continued elsewhere, and the Peace of Paris was not
signed until 1783.
*In the Peace of Paris, 1783, Great Britain recognised the
independence of the United States, set the northern border of the
US where it presently is with Canada (more or less), established
the Mississippi as the border between the US and Spanish
Louisiana, with the Mississippi forever open to navigation by both
nations and Great Britain, gave Florida back to Spain, required
British troops to be removed from US territory, and theoretically
secured liberty and property (and remuneration) for Loyalists,
although at least 65,000 of them left for Canada, other British
colonies, and Britain herself.
*George Washington has been called the indispensable man—the man
America could not have done without. This may seem odd,
considering he lost most of his battles, was not extremely
well-educated, and was disliked by many of his fellow general
officers, who were jealous of his position.
*However, it is important to understand that George Washington was
the figure America needed at the time.
*Washington, more than any other commander, understood how to
fight the British in America. He did not have to win battles
or protect cities, he merely had to keep his army intact and
harass the British until he could make them tire of the war
effort. He lost most of his battles, but kept his army
together to fight another day, until the decisive moment came at
Yorktown, when he seized victory. This strategy, perhaps not
brilliant, but nonetheless effective, won the war.
*He was a man of honour and character, and his principles always
guided him. His hero was the Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who
accepted absolute rule when the Roman Republic was threatened, won
his battles, resigned his power, and returned to his farm.
*Washington’s greatest moment came at Newburgh, New York, when the
war was almost over. Most of the army had not been paid,
many men were unhappy, and most were disgusted by Congress’ poor
performance. At Newburg in 1783, a group of planned to ask
him to lead them and the army on Congress, demanding their back
pay and either taking over the country or moving west and setting
up a new country with Washington as king.
*Washington discovered the plot, and on 13 March, 1783, called a
meeting of his officers where he spoke against the plan, telling
his men to ignore the plan ‘as you value your own sacred
honour.’ He then pulled out a letter from a Congressman
describing Congress’ plans to respond to the army’s
*Before reading it, he put on his spectacles, which most of his
officers did not know he even needed. He said, ‘Gentlemen,
you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only
grown grey but almost blind in your service.’ He then read
the letter and walked out of the meeting, leaving his officers
behind him in tears. Thus, Washington's integrity saved the
young nation from the path of so many other revolutions.
*In November the British evacuated New York City. In
December, Washington resigned his commission, saying he only
wished to retire to his estate on Mount Vernon.
*If nothing else, this proved true the words of King George III,
who had recently asked the American painter Benjamin West what
Washington would do after the war. West said he thought
Washington would resign and return to private life; the king
replied, ‘If he does that, sir, he will be the greatest man in the
This page last updated 10 August, 2021.