16 March 2011

The War Begins (1775-1776): An Overview

During the time leading up to the events of 19 April 1775, both the Americans and the British were preparing for war, but neither side was prepared for war. Militia companies throughout the colonies (and especially in Massachusetts) were training and stockpiling supplies. There was no cohesion, however, on a multi-colony force, and the discipline needed for an effective fighting force was not to be found. The British, for their part, sent more soldiers to the colonies, but they did not send enough. Despite warnings from General Thomas Gage in Massachusetts, the British government was still slow to respond to what Gage though necessary to quell the rebellion. The British for the most part, though, were smug and overconfident, and, during 1775-6, they sometimes underestimated the Americans.

After the British were forced back to Boston from Concord in devastating fashion by the guerilla tactics used by the Americans, there was little change in British thinking. The British army was a well-trained, well-disciplined fighting force in open-field battle. The Americans, however, were not as reliable in that setting, though they were usually effective behind walls, in houses and among the woods. On 17 June 1775, a combination of these factors turned into disaster for the British. They attempted to take a fortified American position on Breed’s/Bunker Hill in Boston, but no effort was made to prepare for retreat, and the British did not even bring a reserve force onto the field. The Americans retreated only after they ran out of powder.

The British wanted, and thought they could have, a quick end to the war. A prolonged war favored the Americans. The Americans could replace their losses more easily; even small American victories (or British setbacks) were huge in the American and British psyche; and the Americans could always retreat and regroup in the seemingly endless wilderness of the country forever. The British had their work cut out for them. Along with the aforementioned American advantages, the British were also at a disadvantage in the facts that not only did they have to re-occupy every colony to re-establish themselves, but they also had the added worry that a protracted war would bring other European powers into the fray.

After Bunker Hill, in late 1775, the Americans made an attempt to take Canada, which failed. By early March 1776, however, George Washington and his rag-tag mix of soldiers had forced the British from Boston, mostly on the backs of Henry Knox and his men. Howe briefly retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The overall British strategy remained the same – bring the Americans back into the fold. Conversely, the details of how to do this differed depending on who was asked. Politics in Parliament and amongst the generals played a major role in the British strategy. While many in England wanted to make the Americans feel the strength of Britain’s full military might, some also wanted to subdue the Americans via economic consequences. The Howe brothers – General Sir William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe – were sympathetic to the American cause. They wanted the colonies under the British umbrella, but they did not want to force it upon them with a devastating war. Howe reminded those who would listen to “treat our enemies as if they might one day become our friends” (Mackesy, 34). It would seem that he would avoid acting in any matter that might be too destructive to the Americans in the early going.

Howe’s early strategy was to use New York City as the British base of operations. From here, Howe planned to isolate the New England colonies by advancing up the Hudson River and uniting with Sir Guy Carleton’s force there. After subduing the hotbed of revolution in New England, Howe would contend with the other colonies (Mackesy, 60). After a failed attempt to subdue South Carolina, General Henry Clinton returned to New York and joined with Howe. The Battle for New York began horribly for the Americans. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Howe landed his force on Long Island in August. A follow-up to the devastating defeat on Long Island was only slowed by Howe’s general cautiousness, and his hope for peace without further war. In fact, from the time of Washington’s retreat on 29 August 1776 until 15 September, Howe’s army made no moves (Mackesy, 89). An attempt at peace was made on 11 September, when Howe met with some prominent American Congressmen on Staten Island. Howe offered only pardons, while the Americans were looking for promises of independence, and nothing was accomplished.

Washington retreated from New York City ahead of the British advance and moved to Harlem Heights and then White Plains. His strategy now was to “on all occasions avoid a general action” (Mackesy, 91). Still Washington, or at least his generals, believed that Forts Washington and Lee could hold strong against whatever the British could throw at them. Unfortunately for Washington, he listened to his generals, who proved to be very wrong. Fort Washington, which the Americans believed could hold out virtually indefinitely against a British assault, was overpowered by a combined British and Hessian force in one afternoon. Those of the American defending force who were killed surrendered to the British to the tune of over 2,600 men (Carrington, 254). Days later, the Americans retreated from Fort Lee without a fight – and without most of their supplies and stores. The loss of these valuable men and accoutrements sent Washington’s army scurrying just ahead of the British advance, clear across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.

While Howe’s men were pacifying New Jersey, Clinton was sent to Rhode Island, where he took Newport with little resistance. Howe was happy with the results of the campaign, and established his winter quarters in lines across New Jersey. Washington was camped with his men on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. He also had posts along the Hudson River in New York. Howe’s plan for the next campaign at the start of December called for a push up the Hudson River. After his unforeseen success, and his closeness to the city, he changed his goal to first capture the Philadelphia, this even despite Washington’s surprise attack and victory at Trenton to close 1776 (and his subsequent successes in the state of New Jersey).

As a final note, the British planned to blockade the American coast, to squeeze the American economy. The Howe brothers were not provided enough ships for this goal, but even more than that, two other factors were involved in the failure of bringing the American economy to its knees. First, not all of the British (including the Howe brothers) were one hundred percent on board with this plan. More importantly, despite the fact that the Americans had barely a navy to speak of, they did have many smaller and faster privateers. These ships were not only able to avoid the larger and slower British ships to deliver goods to the Americans, but some of them were also outfitted for offensive actions. Some of these ships, with the promises of riches, harasses and captured British shipping. The privateers were more than annoying pests, as they were sometimes lucky enough to capture ships containing arms or other necessities, and they continued to act throughout the war to the detriment of the British war effort.


Carrington, Henry B. 1974. Battles of the American Revolution 1775-1781. New York: Promontory Press.

Mackesy, Piers. 1964. The War for America 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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