American Independence War

The Revolutionary War, or American War of Independence, took place between 1775 and 1783 following years of increasingly tense relations between colonists and the British government. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Great Britain responded by passing the Intolerable Acts of 1774. Then, the First Continental Congress was formed to address the colonists’ list of grievances, and war soon broke out. 

Get started Sign up for free
American Independence War American Independence War

Create learning materials about American Independence War with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    The American troops were underfunded, undersupplied, and outmanned - how exactly did they defeat British troops?

    The Intolerable Acts: Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party. These series of acts were designed to restore Great Britain’s authority in the colonies, punish Massachusetts for the destruction of private property, and overall reform the colonial government.

    Colonists were upset that they were being unfairly taxed whilst having no representatives in Parliament. They became further agitated after they learned that King George III had hired German mercenaries to fight in the war and had blockaded American ports.

    The American War of Independence: important dates

    23 December 1773The Boston Tea Party.
    September–October 1774The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia.
    19 April 1775The first shots of the war were fired during the battles of Concord and Lexington.
    2–4 July 1776The Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed by the Second Continental Congress.
    7 October 1777Second Battle of Saratoga. British General John Burgoyne surrendered his entire army.
    Winter 1777–78The Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge outside Philadelphia.
    September–October 1781Siege of Yorktown. Lord General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington.
    3 September 1783The Treaty of Paris ended the war between Great Britain and the United States.

    Timeline of the American War of Independence

    Fighting officially broke out on 19 April 1775, in Boston, Massachusetts. After British forces destroyed colonial powder stores, the Massachusetts militia retaliated by harassing the British army that was stationed there. Soon after, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington to be the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

    The Olive Branch Petition

    The Olive Branch Petition was a petition drafted by the moderates in Congress. It was adopted on 5 July 1775 and signed on 8 July. This bill offered to accept royal authority as long as King George III mediated the dispute between Great Britain and America. However, the Petition had been sent after the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. This declaration, which was sent on 6 July 1775, basically stated why the Thirteen Colonies had taken up arms against Great Britain. Since the Petition was sent after, it was seen as insincere and the Colonial Secretary refused to present the Petition to the king. As a result, the Petition was rejected in early September.

    Although this move was constitutionally acceptable, it disappointed those who had wanted George III to mediate this dispute and the hostile response annoyed even moderate members of Congress. The rejection of the Olive Branch Petition signalled that this movement would not end peacefully.

    Declaration of Independence

    In July 1776, Congress appointed a committee of five to draft a Declaration of Independence. This committee was made up of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. The Declaration stated that the colonies were free from the rule and authority of the British government.

    Congress signed and passed the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration accomplished three things: it gave the colonists a sense of unity by labelling them as 'one people', it explicitly listed how George III violated their rights as Englishmen, and it dissolved America’s political ties with Great Britain.

    One factor that helped with garnering support for independence was Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense. This pamphlet was widely reprinted and argued for independence from England and for the creation of a democratic republic.

    Significant moments and battles of the American War of Independence

    The three most significant moments and battles of the American War of Independence were:

    • The Battles of Saratoga.

    • The Valley Forge.

    • The Siege of Yorktown.

    Battles of Saratoga

    The Battles of Saratoga, which took place between 19 September and 7 October 1777, handed the Americans a decisive victory against British forces.

    The fight began when British General John Burgoyne led an army from Champlain Valley, Canada. At the time, General Burgoyne was expecting two more British forces to join him: one force was expected to march north from New York City and the other force was expected to march east from Lake Ontario. After these three troops united, they would march and capture Albany, New York, and divide New England from the other colonies.

    However, there were some logistical errors and these two forces never joined General Burgoyne’s troops. Seeing that he was outnumbered and trapped, General Burgoyne retreated to Saratoga and eventually surrendered his entire army there on October 17. These battles were important because they convinced France to formally support the war efforts as America’s ally. Previously, France had only provided supplies, ammunition, and guns.

    Think about why delegates were pushing for a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain! They did that because they wanted to explicitly frame this war as something that was not an internal struggle: if the American War of Independence was framed as a war between two countries, then it was more likely that other countries would intervene. When France allied with the US, it was mainly to regain its foothold on the North American continent and weaken its rival, Great Britain. This is because after being defeated by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, France's influence had virtually disappeared from that continent.

    Valley Forge

    Valley Forge was important because this was when the Continental Army transformed into a real army. During the winter of 1777, Washington retreated to Valley Forge. The army faced many problems during this time: the conditions were poor, there was low morale among the soldiers, and there were problems with the supply distribution. Over 2000 soldiers died, with another 3000 being declared unfit for duty because of a lack of shoes.

    The one positive thing that came from this winter was that former Prussian officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben joined the army and used this time as an opportunity to introduce army drills and infantry tactics to the entire Continental Army. He accomplished this by only training model companies in each regiment, who then taught their home units. It would not be a stretch to say that it is thanks to his efforts that the Continental Army became an organized fighting unit.

    Meanwhile, despite the British forces being stationed only twenty miles away, British General William Howe did not make any efforts to attack Valley Forge. Some argue that if he had taken action, it would have ended the war.

    American Independence War, Washington Valley Forge Continental Army in the snow, StudySmarterGeorge Washington at Forge Valley, Wikimedia Commons.

    Siege of Yorktown

    The Siege of Yorktown, between 28 September and 18 October 1781, was an American victory that resulted from a critical misstep on Great Britain’s part. British General Charles Cornwallis had soldiers stationed in Virginia and British General Henry Clinton had troops stationed in New York. Since General Cornwallis’ troops were less well-established than General Clinton’s troops, Washington’s soldiers were en route to attack Virginia because they thought it would be easier to defeat.

    However, after Washington and Lafayette moved a combined French and American force into Virginia, General Clinton thought that this army was making preparations to attack New York. He responded to this threat by instructing General Cornwallis to establish a sea base where the Royal Navy could effectively transport General Cornwallis’ troops to New York to help defend the base against American troops.

    The Marquis de Lafayette

    Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a French general who served in the Continental Army. He left France at nineteen to seek a position in the Continental Army. His tactical leadership set him apart from other generals and he was also an important figure in securing more resources from France.

    Once Lafayette entered Virginia, General Cornwallis followed Clinton's orders and withdrew to Yorktown, Virginia, where he waited for the Royal Navy to evacuate his troops. Despite his subordinates advising him to take action, General Cornwallis made no attempt to engage Lafayette’s soldiers. What worsened this situation was that General Cornwallis abandoned the outer defences, which only hastened the British defeat. Naturally, American troops quickly occupied these outer defence posts.

    American Independence War, The Marquis de Lafayette 1779, StudySmarter

    The Marquis de Lafayette in 1779, Wikimedia Commons.

    After being barraged by American troops and facing dwindling supply conditions, General Cornwallis felt the futility of his situation. Soon after, he sent emissaries to Washington to negotiate the terms of surrender. After twelve hours of negotiation, the terms were finalized the next day. At this point, the Revolutionary War had ended.

    Influence of foreign powers in the American War of Independence

    France, Spain, and the Netherlands each became allies of the United States during the American War of Independence and made different contributions to the war effort.

    The French

    The French Foreign Minister, Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes, saw the American War of Independence as an opportunity to have the colonies be both economically and militarily dependent on France. Consequently, they levelled the playing field between the colonists and Great Britain by providing the colonists with troops, guns, and ammunition.

    It was not until after the Battles of Saratoga that France and the colonies entered into a formal alliance. In February 1778, they signed two treaties: the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, a commercial treaty that regulated trade between the two countries, and a Treaty of Alliance.

    The Treaty of Alliance stated that Congress would defend the French West Indies, so long as the French guaranteed US Independence. At the time, many colonists were opposed to a French alliance. They were worried that they would fall under French rule and effectively exchange one form of tyranny for another.

    To increase French participation in the Revolutionary War, Silas Deane, who represented the US in Paris, promised command positions to any French officer who joined the Continental Army. While most of the candidates turned out to be incompetent, one exception was Lafayette. Lafayette was a strong candidate in both military affairs and in the political sphere. He was instrumental in garnering more support for Washington among his fellow officers and in promoting the Patriot independence movement in France.

    The Spanish and Dutch

    Despite being given the offer to join the French-American alliance, Spain refused because they were worried about the impact the Revolution would have on Spanish colonies in the Americas. While they did not formally join the war in America, they provided the French and Americans with access to the Mississippi River.

    However, in the 1779 Treaty of Aranjuez, the Spanish government agreed to support France in its global war against Britain. They were hoping that by fighting, they would regain the losses they incurred from the Seven Years' War.

    Spain had joined French forces towards the end of the Seven Years' War and was forced to cede Florida to Britain in 1763.

    While the Dutch Republic had lost most of its power and was no longer considered a major power, they were still a formidable force in the trade industry. Before 1774, they dominated the European carrying trade. Dutch merchants were able to turn a large profit by shipping French resources to the Patriots.

    Why are these foreign powers important?

    These foreign powers are important because they prevented Great Britain from focusing all of its resources on fighting the American colonists. In addition, the British government had severely underestimated the support that America was receiving from its allies.

    Traditionally, British policy was to employ its land-based allies to fight its opponents. This would effectively divert the opposition forces. For example, during the Seven Years’ War, this role was filled by Prussia. However, during the American War of Independence, not only was Great Britain diplomatically isolated from its allies, but it also faced war on multiple fronts.

    At this point, George III decided to concentrate most of the British forces on fighting the European war. The victories that Great Britain had racked up during the Seven Years’ War inflated his confidence and gave him reason to think that ultimately, Great Britain would win over France. In the end, Great Britain was not able to find a powerful ally to engage French forces on the European continent. Consequently, Great Britain was forced to divert major military resources away from America in order to fight the French.

    What advantages did American troops have?

    There were a few advantages that American troops had when fighting against the British. Colonists had easier access to food, there were more troops that could be used to supplement the main army, and Loyalist forces were often easily defeated by Patriot forces.

    Easier access to food

    Despite quantitatively lacking more resources, the colonists were at an advantage the longer the war stretched out. This is because the Continental Army depended on local states for food and supplies. In contrast, the British army relied on imports from its mother country. These resources would take six to twelve weeks to arrive by ship.

    Moreover, colonial food and supplies were procured from farms from all over the colonies - this area spread across most of the North American Atlantic seaboard. It would have been very difficult for the British force to interrupt this internal distribution system.

    Patriots vs Loyalists

    Generally speaking, the Patriots received more support from the people than the Loyalists did. One reason for this is that each colony’s capital had its own newspapers and printers. Throughout the war, Great Britain erroneously assumed that the Loyalists would do more of the fighting than they actually did. This is also because wealthy Loyalists had convinced those in the British government that many colonists were still loyal to the Crown.

    Patriots: these were the colonists who wanted the Thirteen Colonies to become more self-reliant and independent of Great Britain, though not all supported complete independence at first. The Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, who drafted the Olive Branch Petition in 1775, hoped for reconciliation between the Colonies and Britain but joined the Continental Army after the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Adams of Boston, on the other hand, was a member of the Sons of Liberty and had pushed for American independence for several years.

    Loyalists: these were residents of the British American colonies loyal to the Crown and who wanted the Thirteen Colonies to stay connected to Great Britain. Prominent Loyalists included William Franklin, the governor of New Jersey and son of Benjamin Franklin, and some French and Indian War veterans like the rangers John Butler and Robert Rogers.

    During the war, many British strategists tried to rely on the Loyalists to provide more troops for the war efforts. However, this strategy failed because the Patriots enjoyed a higher level of support among the people.

    American Independence War, an engraving depicting a man tarred and feathered, StudySmarter

    Engraving depicting a man tarred and feathered, Wellcome Collection

    The British cause took a further hit whenever their troops raided local homes. Their actions only served to anger both Patriots and Loyalists. Furthermore, whenever brutal fighting broke out between the Patriots and the Loyalists, neutral colonists in the Carolinas tended to side with the Patriots. On the other hand, Loyalists were able to garner more support when the Patriots attacked those they suspected to be Loyalists. Patriots would attack by either destroying Loyalist property or tarring and feathering.

    Tarring and feathering: this is a form of harassment and torture where hot tar is poured on the victim and then feathers are thrown at them. This was first used by the Colonists against British tax collectors. Since the tar was so hot, many of these people suffered painful burns and blisters.

    Results of the American War of Independence

    The most significant result of the Revolutionary War was American independence. Both sides of the war met in Paris, where they discussed the details of the peace treaty.

    Treaty of Paris

    The Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War. When delegates met to confer about the terms of the treaty, they wanted to address four issues:

    • Independence.

    • Cession of territory up to the Mississippi.

    • Navigation rights into the Gulf of Mexico.

    • Fishing rights in Newfoundland.

    Diplomatic tensions

    Great Britain, France, and Spain entered negotiations with different goals. Great Britain wanted to strengthen the US enough so that France would not regain a foothold in North America. Previously, France had lost the majority of its North American territory during the Seven Years’ War. Both the French and the Spanish wanted to increase America’s dependence on them so that they could recover from the losses they incurred during the Seven Years’ War.

    John Jay was sent as America’s representative to negotiate the terms of the treaty. However, he faced difficulties with Spain over claims involving the Mississippi River. In addition, France was still reluctant to agree to American independence until all of its demands were met. Seeing this, Jay promptly told the British that he was willing to negotiate directly with them. Prime Minister Lord Shelburne, who was in charge of British negotiations, agreed to this proposal.

    What did the Treaty promise?

    This treaty accomplished three things:

    • It recognised America’s independence and stated that it would gain all of the area east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada.

    • America would be granted fishing rights in the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

    • The United States and Great Britain would both be able to access the Mississippi River at any time.

    The treaty was signed in Paris on 2 September 1783 and was effective the next day when Britain signed its treaty with France. The final versions of this treaty were exchanged in Paris the following spring, after being ratified respectively by Congress and Parliament. On 25 November 1783, the last British soldiers on US soil were transported from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

    The issue of Slavery

    Originally, enslaved and free Black Patriots were barred from serving in the Continental Army from 1775, due to fears of a slave uprising. This ban was reversed after Washington convinced Congress in January 1778 that the Continental Army needed more troops. The army had suffered heavy losses from desertion and disease.

    After the decision was reversed, the First Rhode Island Regiment was formed in February 1778. This regiment of 225 people included formerly enslaved men whose owners were compensated. While only 140 soldiers of this regiment were black, recruitment stopped in June.

    Ultimately, roughly 9000 enslaved African-Americans joined the war effort. Some slave-owners brought their slaves on campaigns, such as George Washington and his slave William Lee. While 5000 enslaved African-Americans served in the Continental Army and Navy, another 4000 worked in militia units, aboard privateers, or as spies.

    Despite being promised their freedom, after the war was over, many were returned to their masters. However, there was a small minority who received land grants or Congressional pensions in old age. By contrast, many enslaved African-Americans served with British forces during the war and some 3000 African-American Loyalists were evacuated to Nova Scotia in 1783.

    The American War of Independence - Key takeaways

    • The Revolutionary War was necessary in order to establish the United States that exists today.
    • At Valley Forge, the Continental Army transformed into a more disciplined force.
    • The French provided many necessary resources for the colonists.
    • Other countries influenced the war by distracting Great Britain from investing all of its resources towards winning the Revolutionary War.
    • While the Revolutionary War accomplished much, it failed at ending slavery. Consequently, the issue only continued to grow and spiral until it became an unstoppable force that resulted in civil war.
    • The Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War and recognized America’s independence and sovereignty.
    American Independence War American Independence War
    Learn with 58 American Independence War flashcards in the free StudySmarter app

    We have 14,000 flashcards about Dynamic Landscapes.

    Sign up with Email

    Already have an account? Log in

    Frequently Asked Questions about American Independence War

    What was the cause of the American War of Independence? 

    Primarily the Colonies' belief that they were being unfairly treated by the British, and that they had no say in any policies or taxes imposed on them. 

    When was the American War of Independence? 

    From 1775 to 1783.

    Who did America defeat in the War of Independence?

    The Colonies defeated the British.

    What was the American War of Independence?

    A war between the British and the American colonists who wanted independence from the British.

    Why did the American War of Independence start?

    The colonists felt that the British were violating their natural rights and feared that the British would start to impose more and more restrictive laws on them.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Washington’s role in the Continental Army? 

    What year was the Declaration of Independence passed? 

    What did Congress create to resolve the problem the Army faced? 


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team History Teachers

    • 18 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner