The Price of Freedom: Americans at War Home Collection Search

War of Independence

Back to overview   |   1 2 3 4 5 6

Fighting the War

The Northern Campaign

For most of 1776, outmatched American troops engaged the British in brief battles and quickly retreated, enduring many defeats and celebrating a few small successes. Nevertheless, the British failed to crush the rebellion.

In 1777, the British planned a three-pronged attack to divide and conquer the northern colonies once and for all. One force of British regulars, Iroquois allies, and loyalist militia (colonists who remained loyal to Britain) would march south from Canada toward Albany. A second army would push north from British-occupied New York City to meet them. A diversionary force would invade western New York.

But in August, the western invasion was repulsed at Fort Stanwix. In September, British troops in Manhattan were sent south to Philadelphia. And in October, Continental troops—reinforced with large numbers of local militia and Indian allies—stopped the British advance at Saratoga.

At the outset of the war, the six Iroquois nations pledged their neutrality: “We are unwilling to join on either side of such a contest,” declared the Oneida in 1775, “for we love you both—old England and new.” But shortly afterward, the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the patriots; the Mohawk and most other Indians sided with Britain.

At least 1,000 British coalition forces were killed in two days of horrific fighting at Saratoga; nearly 5,000 surrendered and most were held as prisoners of war until 1783.

Following the stunning American victory at Saratoga, France openly declared its support and recognized American independence. Holland, Spain, and France provided gold, arms, gunpowder, uniforms, and medicine, as well as cattle and horses. Their troops and warships challenged Britain worldwide, transforming the war for American independence into a war that Britain could not win.


Related Artifacts

Powder Horn
Regimental Uniform Coat of Colonel Peter Gansevoort, Jr.
Guidon of the Second Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, also known as Tallmadge's Dragoons
Long Land Pattern Musket
Field Gun Captured at Saratoga

War in the South

British operations in the South were initially successful. In 1778, British troops captured Savannah, Georgia, and moved inland, taking “a stripe and a star from the rebel flag of Congress.” In 1780 they captured Charleston, South Carolina, taking 6,000 prisoners. But when British forces attempted to move beyond the coast, their progress was slowed by repeated clashes with Continental troops and local partisan militias.

Partisans knew the swamps, savannahs, and pine forests of South Carolina and Georgia. They fought from tree to tree and advanced under cover. Some had deadly accurate, long-range rifled muskets. They used hit-and-run ambushes and ruthless, take-no-prisoners combat, not the close-order volleys and bayonet charges of open-field linear warfare favored by regular armies. They won few outright victories, but they frustrated British efforts to control the South.

Much of the fighting in Georgia and the Carolinas took place between Americans Many colonists there—as in all the colonies—remained fiercely loyal to the king. Some were wealthy aristocrats; most were farmers or tradesmen. Some took refuge in British strongholds in Charleston, South Carolina, or fled to Canada, the Caribbean, or England. Many others joined loyalist militia and fought against opposing partisan units comprised of their own neighbors.


Related Artifacts

Ferguson Rifle
American-Made Musket
Cavalry Saber

War at Sea

The Continental Navy fielded a tiny fleet and a corps of marines. Private vessels hired by Congress to harass enemy troop ships and disrupt commercial shipping, provided the bulk of America’s force at sea. With the navy, they sank or captured hundreds of enemy ships and took thousands of prisoners. But only after the alliance—when French and Spanish warships joined the fight—did the tide turn in favor of the Americans. The British suffered losses in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean, and even in their own coastal waters.


Exhibition Graphics

On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones, commander of the Continental Navy’s Bon Homme Richard, defeated the royal warship Serapis. The Richard was badly crippled in the initial close-range exchange of cannon fire, but when the British commander asked if Jones was ready to surrender, Jones cried: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones, commander of the Continental Navy’s Bon Homme Richard, defeated the royal warship Serapis. The Richard was badly crippled in the initial close-range exchange of cannon fire, but when the British commander asked if Jones was ready to surrender, Jones cried: “I have not yet begun to fight!”


Related Artifacts

Model of the Ship Rattlesnake
Grenade
16 Pound Bar Shot

Victory at Yorktown

In August 1781, General George Washington was monitoring British activity in New York City when he learned that the French fleet was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay. A large British army had retreated from the southern interior, and now occupied Yorktown, Virginia. Washington and Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America, saw a fleeting opportunity to entrap the enemy. They rushed south.

While the French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte de Grasse blocked the Chesapeake and held the British fleet at bay, American and French troops trapped British forces at Yorktown in the fall of 1781. They bombarded the town relentlessly and, in bold assaults, captured important outlying positions. Fierce British counterattacks proved fruitless. On October 17, the British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, accepted a humiliating reality: his position was untenable. He had no choice but to surrender.

The British surrendered more than 8,000 troops at Yorktown. They remained in control of New York and Charleston, and continued limited fighting in the colonies and abroad for another year. But once news of the surrender reached London, popular support for the war vanished. This disaster, together with other setbacks at home and abroad, led to the downfall of Prime Minister Lord North. Britain opened peace talks with American diplomats in Paris.


Exhibition Graphics

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1787

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1787

Comte de Rochambeau by Charles Willson Peale, about 1782

Comte de Rochambeau by Charles Willson Peale, about 1782

Lord Charles Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783

Lord Charles Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783

Washington and His Generals at Yorktown, by James Peale, undated, after Charles Willson Peale, about 1781

Washington and His Generals at Yorktown, by James Peale, undated, after Charles Willson Peale, about 1781

Artillery, munitions, and gunners’ tools, 1798

Artillery, munitions, and gunners’ tools, 1798

General Charles Cornwallis’s letter to George Washington conceding defeat, October 17, 1781

General Charles Cornwallis’s letter to George Washington conceding defeat, October 17, 1781

French engraver’s depiction of the surrender at Yorktown, 1781

French engraver’s depiction of the surrender at Yorktown, 1781


Related Artifacts

Benjamin Lincoln Sword
Ansbach-Bayreuth Regimental Flag
Candlesticks from the Signing of the Treaty of Paris


Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Printable ScriptVisit the MuseumEducationCredits