A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War

Larry Holzwarth - December 29, 2017

Of all the events in American history which have become enshrouded in myth, the American Revolution may well lead the list. Leading actors in its events have become dehumanized, emotionless marble gods spouting platitudes regarding life and liberty, instead of the anxious men who feared for the safety of their family and fortunes which they placed at risk. Many of them were heavily in debt to British merchants and factors; all of them were regarded as criminals by the British government, some from activities before the Revolution such as smuggling. Their motivations were as varied as their circumstances.

The Revolution was a mass of contradictions. It began with a minor skirmish in Massachusetts, it didn’t end until it became a global war. The main author of the Declaration of Independence blamed the British king for the practice of slavery he himself espoused. The majority of Americans did not actively support the Revolution, roughly one third openly opposed it, as did most North Americans living in Canada. The Revolutionary War is said to have begun on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775, a belief which ignores many acts against the British Crown which occurred earlier, including armed insurrection in New Hampshire, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Some towns declared themselves independent of the British Empire more than a year before it was debated in Congress.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
Several states had set up independent governments and new constitutions prior to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. US Capitol

Here are ten things which you may not know about the American Revolution and the people who fought to separate themselves and their posterity from the British Empire.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
John Wentworth was the last Royal Governor of New Hampshire and the first to be replaced by a new constitution declaring the state independent of the Crown. Dartmouth College

Several States declared independence before July 1776

Following the battles of Lexington and Concord several colonies dispatched troops to support the newly formed militia army camped outside of Cambridge Massachusetts. These colonies also took action to dissolve their existing government and establish a new rule of law within their borders. In January, 1776, delegates meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, adopted a new state constitution, which established the colony as an independent state.

Before the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia decided the issue of national independence, Virginia, New Jersey, and South Carolina had declared themselves to be independent states by overthrowing the charters by which they had been governed and establishing written constitutions which declared them to be independent states, governed by local laws. All of them required the ownership of property to vote.

Several of the state constitutions which preceded the Declaration of Independence included a state-established religion, as had existed under British law. Virginia and Massachusetts, the two states whose representatives led the cause of independence in the Continental Congress, both required adherence to the state religion in their state constitutions of 1776.

The earliest debates over suffrage began at the state level, with most states establishing strict voting requirements based on manhood and property ownership, while others, such as Pennsylvania, were more liberal in allowing the franchise. New Jersey granted the right to vote to women under the circumstances of widowhood and property ownership. It was a step which would be retracted more than two decades later.

By the time the Continental Congress took up the momentous issue of independence, most of the former colonies had already been operating as free and independent states, under self-proclaimed laws and self-elected legislatures and governors. Many of the delegates to the Continental Congress were there as designees of these already de facto independent governments.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
Brigadier General Richard Montgomery was killed leading his troops in the assault on Quebec, December 31, 1775. Yale University

The United States tried to conquer British Canada

In 1775 British troops were surrounded in Boston, awaiting reinforcements from England. A proposal was made to invade and seize the British possessions in what is now Canada (it was then called British Quebec), supported by the belief that the Canadians would welcome the Americans as liberators. A two pronged expedition was launched, one moving north via the long established route up Lake Champlain, the Richelieu River, and the Saint Lawrence to seize first Montreal, and then on to Quebec. This expedition was authorized by Congress and General Richard Montgomery was placed in command.

Upset that Congress hadn’t given him the command, General Benedict Arnold convinced George Washington to authorize a second expedition comprised of troops from Washington’s army then besieging Boston, to reach Quebec via a largely water borne invasion via the Kennebec River and the Maine swamps. Arnold led this second group, and became the first of many Continental Army commanders to suffer from the services of suppliers who were indifferent to the quality of the provisions they sold to the American army.

Both expeditions reached the outskirts of Quebec, despite finding that the Canadians were not merely less than welcoming, but in most circumstances outright hostile to the American incursion. Only a few joined the American cause, these were mostly former prisoners of the British. Montgomery’s troops seized Montreal and were outside the British stronghold of Quebec by late November. Arnold’s troops endured one of the epic marches of military history, during which his force was reduced to a mere 600 men by starvation and desertions (he had started out with 1,100). By December he too was outside of Quebec with his force.

Neither commander had generated support from the residents of British Canada, despite Montgomery’s offer to help establish a Quebec government independent from that of Great Britain. On New Year’s Eve the Americans attempted to capture Quebec City by assault, Arnold was severely wounded and Montgomery killed. Virginia rifleman Daniel Morgan was captured. After several months of desultory and ineffective siege, the Americans withdrew.

By the spring of 1776 the Americans were in retreat as British reinforcements and American military and political incompetence shifted the balance of power in Canada. The American invasion of Canada did little to endear the Canadians to their southern neighbors, and the destruction of Canadian industry during the retreat did much to anger them. The Canadian invasion of 1775 was America’s first military incursion on foreign soil, and failed miserably to achieve its strategic objectives.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
A loyalist is given the attention of his Patriot minded neighbors. Project Gutenberg

The Test Laws

After the early battles in Massachusetts the governments of all 13 colonies were quickly taken over by those who called themselves Patriots, meaning that they were supportive of the removal of British rule. Those who opposed the Patriots were called Loyalists by the British, and Tories by the Patriots. Both sides looked with disdain upon the approximately one-third of Americans who favored neither side.

With the Patriots in control of state governments, Congress passed laws which defined treason. Under the law treason included not only the act of making war against the United States, but also giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Following the enactment of treason laws (violation of which was a capital offense) Congress passed laws which enabled the individual states to enact laws to test the loyalty of their citizens.

The Test Laws allowed the states to require their citizens to swear loyalty to the state. Refusal to so swear placed the individual’s property in the hands of the state and subjected the refusing citizen to imprisonment. Those not imprisoned could be barred from the practice of their profession or the execution of their trade. The harshness of the Test Laws in many places led to mob rule, as Tories were subjected to the degradation of public punishment by tar and feathers, whippings, riding a rail, and worse.

The Test Laws ensured that Loyalists’ property was confiscated by the state, purportedly to provide funds to support the war, but often in practice merely lining local pockets. In the South, particularly in the back country of North Carolina, they were cited to help resolve disputes and feuds which ran back several generations.

John Adams, the lawyer who had once defended the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, was a staunch defender of the Test Laws and their forceful application, believing that they would help turn non-aligned citizens to support of the Revolution while unifying resistance to the Tories, whom he considered to be “…an ignorant, cowardly pack of scoundrels…” Eventually, at least eight states executed Tories for the crime of being a Tory, rather than the crime of treason.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
French and British fleets clash of Ushant in 1778. The inconclusive engagement led to the formation of the Armada of 1779. Wikimedia

It became a global war

From the beginning both British and American leaders knew that they would need assistance from foreign powers to successfully prosecute the war. England did not maintain a large standing army and its Hanoverian King sought the assistance of mercenaries from several German states to augment his troops. German troops came from several provinces and principalities, paid for by the British Crown and collectively called Hessians.

American diplomats were sent to France to acquire help from England’s old enemy, and their efforts paid off almost immediately, although initial French aid was covert, funded secretively and privately. After the American victory at Saratoga French assistance became more open. France recognized the United States (the second nation to do so after Morocco) and entered into a military alliance. Spain and the Netherlands soon followed.

Besides the French assistance in North America and the Caribbean, with its Navy successfully countering the British fleet, the war entered the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. France was a rival with England for colonies on the Indian subcontinent, and the war which began at Lexington Green now raged at places with exotic names such as Porto Novo and Trincomalee. Hyder Aly, ruler of Mysore, became a combatant in the war which began as the American Revolution.

Spain besieged the English stronghold at Gibraltar and invaded and secured Minorca. Dutch troops fought the British in India and Central America, as well as on several Caribbean islands. Spanish troops captured Mobile, in what is now Alabama, and parts of Florida. The British, with so many of its troops tied down in North America by Washington’s army, were stretched thin defending their Empire from their Continental rivals.

None of the European nations which sided with the Americans achieved all of their aims in the war. Spain failed to capture Gibraltar, a longtime goal of the Spanish Court. France emerged from the war heavily in debt and with its lower classes rife with egalitarian fervor. The Dutch lost most of their Caribbean colonies. War in India would continue for many years. Only the United States emerged from the conflict with all of its war aims fulfilled, independent and with access to the mineral and natural wealth of a continent.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
Rioting by British mobs was indirectly caused by the Revolution and affected its result. Wikimedia

The Gordon Riots

When the American Revolution began Irish Catholics had long been prohibited from joining the British Army. The ban prevented arming Irish Catholics, who were seen as subversives by the ruling British protestant class, and was effected by the requirement of all soldiers of the Crown taking a loyalty oath which included defending the faith, in this case the faith of the Church of England.

In 1778 Parliament passed the Papists Act of 1778 which, among other things, allowed for the enlistment of Irish Catholics in the British Army. The requirement to take an oath to defend the faith was removed for Irish Catholics, causing resentment among Protestants. Despite the well-recognized need to recruit additional manpower for the army the Act was the cause of disquiet, particularly in British cities, including London.

By 1780 antipathy towards the act and the accusations by its opponents of its leading towards Papism and absolute monarchy had tied it to the Royal propensity to prosecute the war in North America. In the summer of 1780 what began as a protest march on Parliament quickly degenerated into a riot. A mob overran Newgate Prison and destroyed most of it, along with Catholic churches, schools, and homes. The Bank of England suffered heavy damage at the hands of the mob, as did many other London buildings and institutions.

Units of the Army and Home Guard were called out to control the riot. They were ordered to fire into the mob whenever and wherever it refused to disperse and nearly 300 rioters were killed. The riots did immeasurable damage to the international prestige of the British at a time in which they were desperately trying to garner international support against the allies of the Americans. Catholic Austria was discouraged from entering into an alliance with England against the French by the riots, whose leader, George Gordon, was charged with High Treason (he was found not guilty).

It was the Gordon Riots which, upon receipt of the news of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown the following year, impelled the collapse of the government of Lord North and British overtures for peace. Thus one of the critical battles which led to American independence occurred on the streets of London, far removed from Washington’s army and battlefields of North America.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
Lord Jeffrey Amherst – hero of the French and Indian War – opposed the war and argued that it would require an army of 75,000 men to subdue the Americans. National Portrait Gallery

Much of the British Military Leadership Opposed the War

It was not just finding sufficient troops to fight the war in North America which vexed the British political leadership. They also had problems finding suitable commanders to lead them. The war in America was almost universally unpopular with senior British military and naval leaders. There were several different reasons for professional military men to oppose the war, knowledge of the immensity of the American landscape and the difficulty imposing the national will upon it being just one. Many English military leaders simply found the war to be unjust, with varying levels of sympathy for the American cause.

Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who had been one of the most successful and respected British commanders in North America during the French and Indian War, was offered the command of His Majesty’s troops in America and turned it down. Later, while occupying a seat in the cabinet of Lord North as Commander in Chief of the Forces, he insisted that the war could not be successfully completed with less than 75,000 troops.

William Howe, who did go to North America at the command of the British Army and trounced Washington in several battles, never followed up on his victories to completely destroy the Continental Army. With his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, William continued to seek an accommodation with the Americans, hoping for a peaceful settlement. Later in life Howe claimed to have opposed the war, and had served only because he had been so ordered by his sovereign.

Another officer of note in British society, Thomas Howard, 3rd Earl of Effingham, resigned his commission in protest rather than serve when he received orders that would have sent him and his regiment to North America, leading the Americans to name a frigate USS Effingham in his honor.

In the hierarchy of the British Army many officers manned their own regiments, including the officers who served under them, and thus commanded loyalty which was more to them personally than to country or Parliament. The paucity of troops whose first loyalty was to the Crown was another reason the King was forced to turn to his fellow German princes to hire mercenaries to send North America to subjugate his intractable subjects.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
The official uniform of the Continental Army was to have been brown, not blue, which was the color of the Virginia Militia uniform worn by Washington. US Army

The Americans relied on a professional volunteer army

One of the prevailing myths of the American Revolution is that of the liberty loving farmer leaving his fields to grab his musket and fight for the cause of freedom, to return to the plow following the battle. While militia companies did lead the response at Lexington and Concord, and later formed the nucleus of the Continental Army at Cambridge, both the British adversaries and the American leadership despised and distrusted the American militia. George Washington and his generals sought from the beginning to build a professional army.

Washington was well aware that the quality and efficacy of militia varied wildly, wholly dependent on the quality and efficacy of local leadership. Many militia units were officered by men elected by their troops, with little or no merit other than popularity. Others were officered by men who could afford to uniform and sometimes even arm their men, but who had no experience leading them. Many militia had no qualms about abandoning their positions, even in the face of the enemy.

Throughout the war Washington importuned Congress to strengthen the Continental Army by lengthening the terms of enlistment. Congress, fearful of a powerful standing army, resisted these efforts, continuing to place a reliance on the militia of the individual states. As the realities of the war revealed themselves, Congress gave more power to the Continental Army and its commanders, helped by French money to pay the troops.

Enlistment terms for the Army varied throughout the war, usually from one to three years. Soldiers were paid based on rank and service time, although actual pay was scarce. As the war went on uniforms evolved, the official uniform of the Continental Army was brown, but official uniforms were even scarcer than pay. By the mid-point of the war, training camps were established in several states where newly recruited units were drilled in the manual at arms developed by Baron von Steuben for use of American infantry.

The militia continued to be mustered with the army as necessary, but Washington placed less and less reliance on the temporary volunteers and more and more on his professional soldiers as the war went on. By 1780 engagements between Continentals and British regulars revealed that the American troops were the equal of, if not superior to, their enemies. That George Washington was able to build a professional army while under fire, equal to what was then perceived as the world’s best, may well have been his greatest contribution to the success of the Revolutionary War.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
George III in his coronation robes. The third monarch from the House of Hanover he was the first to speak English. Wikimedia

King George III was a not a hated tyrant and despot

With a few exceptions, the Founders who led the American Revolution which preceded the Revolutionary War were insistent on obtaining and protecting their full rights as Englishmen, under English law, protected by a benevolent English king. George III was seen as their legal and legitimate sovereign. As the war progressed and gradually shifted in scope, King George fell into more and more disfavor, to become depicted as a grasping tyrant stubbornly refusing to grant Americans the independence they deserved.

Ceding a continent to another nation would be against the principles (and common sense) of any ruler, and in essence that is what George was asked to do. It was more than just a continent, it was a country which England had spent considerable manpower and wealth securing from its continental rival, France. And it was a collection of colonies, peopled in 1770 largely by Englishmen who at the time enjoyed the highest standard of living anywhere in the known world.

That is one of the truly unique aspects of the American Revolution. It was led and conducted not by an oppressed, starving, and abused constituency but by a largely well-to-do, well-fed, healthy (for their day) and unrestricted people who enjoyed freedoms unavailable anywhere else, including in the mother country against which they rebelled. It isn’t any wonder that even the most intractable revolutionaries blamed the problems with England on Parliament rather than on the King, under whom these blessings had been bestowed.

Despite receiving the good wishes of most of even his disloyal subjects, George III managed to squander what good will he had early in the war, through the hiring of German troops. Once the troops known collectively as Hessians appeared on the scene – hired outsiders in what had been a family quarrel – his standing among the citizens of North America deteriorated.

During the years in which colonial resistance to Parliamentary attempts at taxation was limited to protests and embargoes, George III acted well within his duties as a constitutional monarch, and was widely recognized as such by most Americans. Not until the Revolutionary war was well underway was George III considered to be a tyrant and a leading cause of the war.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
Although John Paul Jones won fame in battle at sea, it was the largely unknown privateers that brought the British economy to its knees. Library of Congress

The British were roundly beaten at sea

The belief that the Americans had little success in the war at sea other than the stirring victories of John Paul Jones is erroneous. Although the American Navy had few ships, and fewer still victories over British warships, the Americans managed to deal the proud British Navy a stinging defeat in the war at sea. One of the primary roles of a Navy during wartime is to protect its own nation’s merchant marine. In this role the British Navy failed miserably.

In the eighteenth century it was a common practice for nations’ to license privately owned ships to attack and capture ships of aggressor nations. The licensees were known as privateers. The ships and cargoes they captured became their property, to be sold by maritime court. The profit potential for successful privateers was enormous. America’s ports soon swarmed with privateers, as did ports in France.

Over 1,600 privateers sailed under license – known as a letter of marque – issued by the Continental Congress or by the individual states. They captured over 2,200 British ships, mostly merchantmen, whalers carrying valuable oil, or fishing vessels off of the Grand Banks. Their depredations wreaked havoc on the British economy, and after the entry of the French fleet into the war the British lacked the warships necessary to hunt them.

The privateers helped build private fortunes in the United States as cargoes meant for British markets or British trade partners found new customers in French or Spanish ports, with some entering American ports under the nose of the British blockade. The damage to the British economy, which hit British merchants and manufacturers the hardest, was in excess of $300 million dollars measured in today’s currency.

Despite no major naval victory until the French fleet defeated the British off the Virginia Capes in 1781, the British lost the Revolutionary War at sea to a nation which had no navy when the war began. By 1780, pressure from British merchants who were forced to pay skyrocketing insurance rates on ships and cargoes added to the clamor for Parliament to end the war. It should be noted that had the British secured the sea lanes, French aid would never have been able to reach the Americans.

A Revolution Like You’ve Never Seen: 10 Facts You Don’t Know About America’s Revolutionary War
The task of stopping the armada fell to Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, a former Colonial Governor of New York. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The Armada of 1779

After the entry of Spain into the Revolutionary War, the continental allies of Spain and France resurrected an old dream – the invasion of England. The Spanish were concerned over the ultimate fate of their New World colonies and thus did not enter into direct support of the Americans as had the French. However the Spanish did enter into joint military action with the French, and suggested attacks on both the British base at Gibraltar and on the Isle of Wight.

A combined naval operation was then proposed, in which 30 French ships of the line would rendezvous with a fleet of 36 Spanish ships of the line. A force of 40,000 troops was meanwhile built up around the French ports of Le Havre and St. Malo. A fleet of transport boats to carry the troops across the British Channel was created. An American squadron, which was actually mostly French ships crewed with French sailors, was put to sea, led by an American Captain named John Paul Jones, sailing in an old French vessel named BonHomme Richard. It was to act as a diversion, shifting the attentions of the British Home fleet in its direction.

In August the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was sighted off the British coast, causing an uproar verging on panic. Unknown to the opposing British fleet was that the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was ravaged with illness among its crews. The British maneuvered in the Channel to their home port of Portsmouth, where supported by shore batteries they prepared to do battle with the much larger forces of the enemy.

The Franco-Spanish crews were beset with scurvy, as well as typhus, which flourished in the crowded conditions aboard the warships. The idea of fighting the British fleet well supported with land based artillery, using severely weakened crews, did not appeal to the French and Spanish commanders. The French troops awaiting embarkation were also suffering from typhus and in some encampments, smallpox. Finally the lateness of the year and the prospect of fighting on British soil in the coming winter months, with the daunting challenge of resupply across the notoriously rough British Channel, disheartened the Franco-Spanish leadership. The invasion was postponed.

It was the closest the British had come to invasion since the days of the Spanish Armada and Queen Elizabeth I. Had the invasion taken place the effect on the American Revolution is incalculable. In August 1779 the Continental Army was encamped outside New York, with Washington anxiously awaiting French naval intervention to aid in taking the city. He was as yet unaware that the American Revolution would receive the aid it needed from foreign allies, to whom the fate of America was now just a small part of a much larger issue.