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The Battles of the American Revolution

The Battle of Long Island

Shortly after the Americans delivered their declaration of Independence to the king of England, England attempted to split the colonies in two so that supplies could not be sent from the southern colonies to the northern colonies. Washington knew that their next step would be to take over New York Harbor. Because of this, Washington moved his new, untrained army north from Boston to defend New York City and its harbor. When they arrived in New York, General Washington made a potentially fatal mistake. He split his army in two. While half of his army stayed in the city, Washington and the other half of his army moved to Long Island. On August 27, 1776, the British Navy began to bomb the Americans on Long Island. Washington and his 9,500 soldiers were trapped with no way to escape. Then British General William Howe, with 32,000 men under his command landed on Long Island. It was late in the day on August 29 and General Howe chose to set up camp and wait until morning to attack the Americans, capture General Washington, and end the war. However, Washington had a desperate plan to escape with his army. As soon as night fell, Washington began to row his army the one mile across the channel. During the first part of the night, a violent wind storm arose which blocked the British warships from being able to move closer to the escaping Americans. The wind also made the short journey more difficult. The waves were sloshing and swamping the boats. When the wind stopped, more men could be rowed back in the boats at a time but they had to be careful to be very quiet. In order to block the British’s view of the operation, Washington had some of his men stand in a straight line like a wall. Around 2:00am the soldiers left their post because they thought it was their turn to cross the channel. When Washington found out, he panicked because of the mistaken order. For a full half hour, the entire rowing operation was in full view of the British army under the light of a full moon yet none of the British soldiers noticed. Throughout the night the army was slowly being rowed across to safety but by dawn only half of the 9,500 men had crossed the channel. Then at dawn, a heavy fog fell blinding the British. The fog lasted for several hours and did not lift until the last American boat had left the shore and traveled out of range of the British guns. When the British charged they found the Americans were gone. The American soldiers later wrote in their journals that it was the hand of God that rescued them from certain defeat. Although General Washington had lost the first major battle of the Revolution, he and his army had been miraculously saved, arguably saving the colonies from being defeated.

The Battle of Trenton

During the first couple years of the war, the British army won nearly every battle. When the winter of 1776 arrived, Washington's army was discouraged, tired, cold, poorly clothed, and hungry. Perhaps one of the greatest threat to the American’s quest for independence was the soldier’s discouragement from losing so many battles. To make it worse, many of their enlistments would be up at the end of the year. If the majority of his army did not re-enlist, the American’s would not have enough men to continue the fight. Knowing this, Washington needed a plan. In December, Washington hatched a plan to give the American army a victory and raise morale. The British army had hired German mercenaries, or Hessians, to help them defeat the American rebels. The Hessians had set up their winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington’s plan was to launch a surprise attack on the Hessians. His plan was to attack on the day after Christmas, while the Germans were sleeping off their Christmas celebration. On Christmas night, Washington and his men crossed the icy, freezing Delaware River. It was a treacherous crossing. Once all the men had crossed the river, the Americans marched almost 40 miles to Trenton. When they arrived, they attacked the unsuspecting Hessians. The attack worked exactly as planned. The ragtag American army caught the professional German fighters completely off guard. The Hessians were sleeping and were not watchful. Although they fought back, the Americans had the huge advantage of surprise. The Americans won the battle, capturing over 900 prisoners. The victory was exactly what the Americans needed. It gave the army hope, courage, and the will to continue the fight. The victory also encouraged the men to re-enlist when their original enlistment was over at the end of the year. General George Washington ended the year with a major win both for the cause of independence and for the morale of the army.

Valley Forge

Perhaps the lowest point of the war for Washington and his army was the winter of 1777-1778. At the beginning of the winter, General Washington chose Valley Forge, Pennsylvania as winter quarters for his army. Because the canvas tents would do little to protect the men against the cold winter, Washington ordered his men to build log cabins. The cabins would be 16 feet by 14 feet and only 6 feet high. The cabins would be built without a floor or windows and there would be four sets of bunks, three beds high for 12 men a cabin. Even though it was cold and uncomfortable, General Washington stayed in his tent until all the men were housed in the cabins. After a month of building cabins, the army was housed and Washington moved into a nearby farmhouse. During the long, cold winter at Valley Forge, roughly 12,500 men died of exposure, starvation, and disease. Despite the harsh conditions, starvation, and lack of warm clothes and shoes, the Americans were willing to endure the hardships and sorrows at least in part because their commander-in-chief was there with them, enduring the same hardships.

Battle of Monmouth

After a few successful battles late in 1777 and early 1778, the French agreed to help the colonies win their independence from England. The American army also saw a rush of new recruits. With the strength of their enemies’ armies growing, the British became fearful. General Clinton was ordered to leave Philadelphia and take his 10,000 men to New York City. They began their long march through woods and farmland on June 18, 1778. The next day Washington ordered General Lee to take some men and attack the moving army from the rear. Washington and the rest of the army would follow. General Clinton’s army made slow progress on the soft dirt roads and by June 28, General Lee caught up with the British. The Americans began their attack near Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey. The British turned and started a counter attack. Although the British were losing, General Lee disobeyed orders and started retreating. When the British saw the Americans retreat, they became excited and charged the Americans. When it seemed all would be lost for General Lee’s men, General Washington arrived with the rest of the army and his dependable generals, such as Nathaniel Greene, Lafayette, and Anthony Wayne. Washington ordered a charge and the Americans outfought the best British regiments until it was the redcoats turn to retreat. This battle demonstrated to both sides that the Americans did have a chance and might possibly win this war. Although Washington won the battle, General Lee faced court martial because of his retreat during the battle.

Battle of Yorktown

The battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American war for independence. In August of 1781, General Cornwallis made a mistake by trapping himself along with over 8,000 soldiers near Yorktown, Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay. The French General Lafayette observed the position of the British troops and realized that they could easily be surrounded and overtaken. He immediately sent a swift rider to carry a message to General Washington. Along with the French generals who were their allies by this time, Washington took his army and headed to join General Lafayette and his men. The French army of 4,000 and the American army of 3,000 started their march to Yorktown on August 19. The two armies traveled to the tip of the Chesapeake Bay and then sailed down to Williamsburg, Virginia on the French Fleet. On September 28, Washington had command of over 7,800 French soldiers, 3,000 militia men, and 8,000 men of the Continental army. When they arrived at Yorktown, the French Navy successfully blocked any chance of the British escaping by sea. Under the leadership of Lafayette, the French troops blocked the British from escaping by land. Once the British were surrounded the Americans began to bomb the British fortifications at Yorktown. The bombardment lasted for over a month while the British army hid behind their walls and fought back. Finally, after a long battle, the American cannons had destroyed the British fortifications. On October, 14, the Americans and French began charges on the fortifications. On October 17, 1781, the white flag was waved from the walls of Yorktown. The 17,000 soldiers of the French and American armies lined up on either side of the road for a more than a mile long. They stood facing each other as the more than 7,000 soldiers of the defeated British army marched between them. At the end of the line of soldiers, General George Washington waited on horseback to accept the formal surrender of General Cornwallis’s sword. Cornwallis was so ashamed, he refused to bring the sword himself and it was delivered by one of his lesser generals.