11 May 2011

The Campaign of 1778-1779

The winter of 1778 was experienced at opposite ends of the spectrum for the American and British armies.  While the British rested comfortably in Philadelphia, the Americans spent much of the winter at Valley Forge suffering through the cold in huts without proper supplies or sufficient amounts of food.  The Americans again benefited from lack of action on the part of Howe and the British.  Convinced that the Americans were strong enough to repel a British attack, or at least cause many casualties, Howe decided not to act.  In the meantime, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer, arrived at Valley Forge on 23 February 1778 (NPS, 2010).  Steuben spent the following months training the American army in skills and discipline. 

          Howe still had not moved from Philadelphia in April, and on 8 May, Sir Henry Clinton arrived in the city from New York (Mackesy, 213).  With the French now joining the war, Clinton had to evacuate Philadelphia, or risk being trapped in Philadelphia if the French blockaded the mouth of the Delaware.  Not able to embark the entire army, the horses, supplies and loyalists who wishes to evacuate the city with the British, Clinton decided to march most of his army across New Jersey to New York City.

The British completed the evacuation of Philadelphia on 18 June 1778.  Even before Washington was informed, the Americans were harassing the British columns.  Washington sent his army out of Valley Forge in pursuit.  Washington had men all over the field, none under a singular commander.  General Charles Lee, after refusing command, decided he did want command (which was given to Lafayette).  Washington ordered Lee to attack the exposed British flanks at first chance.  Lee was extremely cautious, and he orders were conflicting, if he issued orders at all.  Colonel John Laurens, present at the battle, wrote that the Americans “had advanced in a plain open country towards the enemy’s left flank” but “were ordered by Genl Lee to retire and occupy the village of Monmouth. 

They were no sooner formed there, than they were ordered to quit that post and gain the woods.  One order succeeded another with rapidity and indecision calculated to ruin us.” (Laurens, 195).  Only when an exasperated Washington rode forward did the Americans rally to take the field.  The British took a page from Washington’s playbook and retreated in the night, eventually arriving at Sandy Hook and departing to New York.  Lee’s actions at the Battle of Monmouth, and his subsequent letter writing to Washington, led to a court martial, which led to the end of his military career. 

     Following the evacuation of Philadelphia and the Battle of Monmouth, Clinton feared the French fleet would support the Americans in Rhode Island.  Clinton sent Admiral Howe with his fleet, but a storm damaged the ships of both navies and battle was completely avoided when the British failed to cut off Sullivan’s land retreat in Rhode Island (Mackesy, 219), and thus ended the season’s campaign in the north.

     The British turned their sights south, hoping to capitalize on loyalists and the lack of the same rebel resistance which existed in the north.  In December 1778, the British forced the Americans to retreat from Savannah, Georgia.  This was a huge loss for the Americans.  Not only did the Americans have about 600 casualties, they also lost 48 cannons, 23 mortars, 94 barrels of powder, large amounts of other supplies and one of the most prominent ports in the south (Savas, 193).  The British, after gaining this foothold, were able to fan out across the south from Savannah.  By the spring of 1779, the British had Georgia mostly back under Royal control and were marching on South Carolina to begin the 1779-80 campaign.


Laurens, John. The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the Years 1777-8. . New York: The New York Times & Arno Press, 1969.
Mackesy, Piers. The War for America 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
National Park Service (NPS). Valley Forge National Histoical Park. December 21, 2010. http://www.nps.gov/vafo/historyculture/people.htm (accessed February 6, 2011).
Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York: Savas Beatie, 2006.
Scheer, George F. and Hugh F. Rankin. Rebels and Redcoats. New York: World Publishing Co., 1957.
Wood, W.J. Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781. Chapel Hill: Da Capo Press, 2003.