1775 - 1783  (G3a)


and the WAR AT SEA

xxxxxThe resounding victory of the Colonists at the Battles of Saratoga in 1777, plus the fact that the British were known to be wanting a peace settlement, brought the French into the war in 1778. They had given arms and ammunition unofficially since the conflict began, but now they prepared their navy and army for a full-scale offensive. The importance of the French decision cannot be exaggerated. It gave an enormous psychological boost to the rebels, and it changed the war into an international struggle. Control of the seas, particularly the coastal waters of North America, became a vital issue for Britain. Meanwhile in the north, the British concentrated their forces around New York, their army from Philadelphia only just managing to survive an attack from Washington at Monmouth, New Jersey, as it made its withdrawal. In the south, however, they went on the offensive, taking Georgia, holding on to Savannah, and capturing Charlestown in 1779, before gaining an impressive victory at Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780. Even here, however, the Colonists fought back, using guerrilla tactics. Two months later some 900 frontiersmen ambushed over 1,000 Redcoats on King's Mountain and virtually wiped them out. And this was to prove but the first of a series of defeats for the British. As we shall see, at Yorktown in October 1781, they were finally forced to abandon their claim to their North American colonies.

xxxxxAs early as 1776 the Continental Congress had formed a three-man commission - Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee - to liaise with the French monarchy in the hope of obtaining not only material support, but also open recognition of their cause. Their hope was now realised. In February 1778 two treaties were signed. The first was a trade agreement between the two "nations", and, as such, officially recognised the legality of the new country. The second was of more immediate importance. It provided a military alliance against Great Britain, but with the proviso that peace could only be agreed by consent of both signatories. In addition, France renounced all claims to North America east of the Mississippi, whilst the United States (were it to exist) guaranteed French possessions in the West Indies.


xxxxxIt would be difficult to exaggerate the importance to the colonists of France's entry into the war. It was, first and foremost perhaps, an enormous psychological boost to the independence movement. And quite apart from the increase this was to bring in troops and arms, it meant that the British fleet would be challenged not only on the high seas, but also in the North American coastal waters where Britain most needed to rule the waves. As we shall see, naval power was to prove a significant factor in the final victory of the colonists at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

xxxxxAsxa result of the French decision, in 1778 the British decided to concentrate their forces around New York City and to send reinforcements to their possessions in the Caribbean. Consequently their new commander, General Sir Henry Clinton, withdrew his army from Philadelphia and began the march across New Jersey. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Washington, leaving his winter quarters at Valley Forge, caught up with the British at Monmouth (now Freehold) in June 1778. In the battle that followed (illustrated), the largest artillery encounter of the war, neither side got the upper hand, but the colonists, having undergone extensive training during the winter months, acquitted themselves well and gained a moral victory. The British eventually reached New York and Washington took up positions outside the city. Meanwhile, stalemate continued in the west, though Indian tribes, for the most part loyal to George III as their "great white father", continued to pose a constant threat to the frontier communities. The Cherokee and the Iroquois, in particular, frequently clashed with the patriot militia.

xxxxxIn the south, however, there was a deal of action, led by the British. The southern states, it was considered, were more loyal to the Crown, as well as being of more value commercially. In December 1778 and January 1779 troops from New York and Florida occupied Georgia and, later in the year, Franco-American attacks on Savannah were beaten off. And soon after the arrival of General Clinton with nearly 9,000 troops, Charlestown (now Charleston) was captured in May 1779 together with a garrison of some 5,000 men. It was after this that Clinton, learning that Newport was under threat from a French expeditionary force commanded by Count de Rochambeau, returned to New York. Cornwallis remained in Charlestown, and in August 1780 notched up another royalist victory when his army roundly defeated a rebel force led by General Gates at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina.

xxxxxNotxhelping the rebel cause at this time was a number of near mutinies within the ranks of the Continental Army over poor pay and conditions (put down by local militia), and the defection of one of its most able generals Benedict Arnold, a veteran of the Saratoga campaign. Grieved at what he saw as a lack of recognition, in 1780 he attempted to betray West Point to the British. When the plan misfired, he had to make his escape and join the ranks of his former enemy. But despite these internal troubles, and the string of British victories, the rebel cause was by no means lost. Whilst often at a disadvantage in pitched battles, the guerrilla tactics used by the frontiersmen or “Overmountain Men” (here illustrated), continued unabated and seriously hampered their enemy's movements.

xxxxxIn October 1780, for example, a force of 900 frontiersmen from North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia - a bunch of cunning back-country "hillbillies" (volunteers) - ambushed 1,000 or more Redcoats at King’s Mountain and virtually wiped them out for the loss of 28 men. It was a psychological boost to the rebel cause and proved, in fact, to be the beginning of the end for British control of her American colonies. Indeed, as we shall see, exactly a year later they were forced to concede defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781.

xxxxxIncidentally, because of the extremely harsh conditions endured by Washington's troops over the winter of 1777-1778, their encampment at Valley Forge, 20 miles north-west of Philadelphia, has come to symbolise the courage and fortitude shown by the colonists in their fight for independence. The men, poorly clothed and with inadequate shelter, had to endure hunger and bitterly cold weather. It is estimated that of the 12,000 garrison some 2,500 died during these winter months. Yet despite these conditions, under the guidance of the Prussian Baron Frederick von Steuben (1730-1794), and the Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, the men received regular training, a programme in arms and discipline which, as we have seen, stood them in good stead at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. ...…

xxxxx...... In order to keep up his men's morale during these appalling winter conditions, Washington ordered that the first issue of The American Crisis, a pamphlet written by the Anglo-American writer Thomas Paine, was to be read out to all his troops. A powerful and eloquent paper in support of independence, its opening line read: These are the times that try men's souls. .... Earlier, in 1776, Paine had produced his Common Sense, another influential pamphlet in favour of independence. ……

xxxxx…… The Marquis de Lafayette who, as we shall see, was to play a prominent role in the French Revolution, took command of both French and American troops at the Battle of Yorktown. Known as “America’s Marquis”, he was made an honorary citizen of the newly independent United States in 1784. Later, one mountain and towns in four states were named after him!


Outline:, Ganske Publishing Group. Monmouth: by the German/American painter Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), 1854 – Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold, New Jersey. Frontiersmen: by the American artist Lloyd Branson (1853-1925), 1915 – black and white version in the Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, USA, photograph by June Dorman. Valley Forge: by the American lithographer Philip Haas (active 1837-1863), c1843 – Library of Congress, Washington. Jones: by the American painter Charles William Peale (1741-1827), c1781 – National Historic Park Service, U.S. Federal Government, Washington. Serapis: by the American marine artist William Elliott (died 1792) – US Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. Map (Battles): Dogger Bank: by the English painter Thomas Luny (1759-1837) – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Diagram: date and artist unknown.



Valley Forge,

John Paul Jones


David Bushnell

xxxxxAs we have seen, the defeat of the royalist forces at the Battles of Saratoga in 1777 was a serious blow to the forces of the crown. In the south, Washington had been badly mauled by the end of the year. Despite some surprise victories, he had been pushed out of New York by General Howe, defeated at Brandywine Creek and seen Philadelphia fall to the enemy in September 1777. In the north, however, it was a very different story. The defeat and capitulation of an entire army under the command of General Burgoyne was nothing short of a disaster, and it had significant international repercussions. Up to this point the French had remained neutral officially, but had been secretly aiding the American rebels with money and material. Now, convinced that the colonists had the will to win their war of independence, and hearing rumours that Britain was anxious for a peace settlement, France came out fighting.

xxxxxAlthough Britain ruled the waves, the War at Sea was not without incident in the opening years of the war. The Continental Navy was established in October 1775 and, whilst small in number, caused havoc not only in the coastal waters along the North American coast, but also around the shores of Britain. The American hero John Paul Jones was but one of a number of captains who by 1777 had captured 560 vessels and their crews. This number had almost trebled by the end of the war. But the entry of France into the war in 1778 (followed by Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands in 1780) was the real threat to British sea power. Britain sent naval support to Gibraltar and the West Indies - both threatened by the Allies - and for two years the North American coastline was reasonably defended, though French men-of-war did break through and troops were landed. By 1780, however, privateers were swarming around the British coasts, there was a real danger of an invasion, and the grip on controlling the North American coastal waters was beginning to slip. When that grip was lost, as it was at Yorktown in 1781, the British faced defeat.

xxxxxIn the opening years of the American War of Independence, the War at Sea had been limited, but it was not without incident. The Continental Navy was established in October 1775, but its number of ships was small - about 27 -, the majority of seamen much preferring to go privateering. Among the American naval captains who distinguished themselves was John Paul Jones (1747-1792), Scottish born and a fugitive from British justice. In 1776 he commanded the sloop Providence and captured 16 British ships along the North American coast. Then in 1777, as captain of the 18-gun Ranger, he sailed to France. From there he carried out a series of daring raids along the English and Scottish coasts. Impressed with his escapades, the French presented him with a converted merchantman. Naming it Bonhomme Richard, Jones set out in command of a squadron of four ships in August 1779, and within the space of a few weeks had captured 17 enemy merchant ships off the British coast. Then towards the end of September he dared to attack a British man-of-war HMS Serapis in the North Sea (illustrated here and shown on map below). Although out-gunned and much smaller in size, the three-hour battle ended with the surrender of the British ship. His victory came to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary engagements in naval history. He was hailed as a hero, and on returning to America received a gold medal from Congress. He ended his career as a rear admiral in the Russian navy, serving until 1790.

xxxxxBut his was not the only American ship in British waters. A large number were operating in the same area, and by 1777 they had captured 560 British vessels and their crews. This number had probably trebled by the end of the war. Little wonder that British merchants were eager to see an end to hostilities before hostilities put an end to them.

xxxxxThe entrance of France into the war in 1778, followed by Spain in 1779, posed a serious threat to Britain's mastery of the seas, and questioned Britain's ability to defend England against possible invasion, support a full-scale war in North America and, at the same time, protect its colonial possessions overseas - notably Gibraltar and those in the West Indies. Indeed, by 1780 Britain was in real danger. Dutch and Spanish privateers had joined the Americans around British coastal waters, the combined fleets of France and Spain had gained command of the English Channel, and a French army of some 50,000 was preparing for an invasion - though the threat never materialised. AndxDecember 1780 saw the outbreak of a war with the Netherlands - the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War - triggered off by Britain’s attempt to stop the Dutch trading with the American colonists. It lasted until May 1784, but the only notable engagement of the conflict was the Battle of Dogger Bank in August 1781 (illustrated), a costly encounter in which both sides claimed victory.

xxxxxIn the meantime, as a direct result of British naval weakness, in 1778 a French fleet had left Toulon and successfully reached New York, and in a battle off Ushant in July of that year, the British navy had put up a poor performance and let slip the Brest fleet. It was ships from this fleet which conveyed General Rochambeau's army to North America, and also provided the French squadron which, under the command of the Comte de Grasse, was summoned to Chesapeake Bay. Both these land and naval forces played a vital part in the blockade of Yorktown and the British surrender.

xxxxxNonetheless, the British managed to send reinforcements to Gibraltar - placed under the Great Siege by the Spanish in the autumn of 1779 - and to despatch a fleet to the West Indies. And for the time being, too, they kept control of the coastal waters along the North American seaboard. They realised that if that control were to be lost then there was little hope of holding on to the American colonies. As we shall see, the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was to prove their point.

xxxxxIncidentally, the Bonhomme Richard sank after its encounter with the Serapis in September 1779. Towards the end of the 20th century, divers searching off Flamborough Head, on the east coast of England, discovered what is believed to be its wreckage.

xxxxxThe American War of Independence witnessed the use of the first American submarine. Constructed of wood by the American inventor David Bushnell (1740-1824) in 1775, and named the Turtle because of its shape, it was built to break the British naval blockade of New York harbour. Able to travel below the water with only about six inches showing above the water line, it was designed to approach the hull of an enemy ship and attach a time bomb or mine to it by means of an external screw or augur device. To be all but submerged, the operator simply let in the right amount of water - up to about his knees! - , and to return to the surface this water was removed by a hand pump. The one-man craft was driven by propellers, cranked by hand, and, without an air supply, could only remain submerged for half an hour.

xxxxxUnfortunately for Bushnell, and the rebel cause, the idea did not work. Several attempts were made against British warships in 1776, but though the Turtle proved capable as a crude form of submarine, it became far too difficult to control the movement of the vessel under water. Nevertheless, General Washington gave Bushnell a commission in the engineers, and he ended up in command of the Army Corps of Engineers at West Point.

xxxxxHe is sometimes called the "father of the submarine", but, as we have seen, an attempt at making a submarine was made much earlier by the Dutch inventor Cornelius van Drebbel in 1620 (J1). It would be true to say, however, that Bushnell was the first to make and employ a submarine as an instrument of war. And, as we shall see, his version was to be greatly improved upon by his fellow countryman Robert Fulton in 1801 (G3b).