Military History of the American Revolution

draft 2-12-2002
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Return to main page 1. In Search of Independence 2. Two Armies Contest North America
3. The New York City Disaster 4. Counter-Revolutionary Warfare 5. Burgoyne's Plan: Split the Colonies, 1777
6. Decisive Victory: Saratoga, 1777 7. The Meaning of Saratoga 8. The Southern Campaign, 1779-1781
9. Problems of the American Army 10. Britain Invades the South, 1778-81 11. War at Sea
12. Victory at Yorktown, 1781 Study Questions Additional Links

Study Questions
  1. The northern and southern colonies (or states, as they were called after 1776), made for very different theatres of war, because of geographical conditions (terrain, ports, rivers, weather), and settlement patterns and economic activities. They also differed in terms of population (the proportions of patriots and loyalists; freemen and slaves). Show how the military campaigns in the North differed from those in the South?
  2. In a long complex war, supplies, financing and the logistics of getting supplies to the soldiers can be critical. Overland transportation was slow and expensive--and imports from Europe were even slower and more costly. Explain how both the Americans and the British faced major logistics problems. How did each side try to solve their problems, and how successful were they? How important was French help to the Americans? were they? li> How valid is the claim, "Without the help of the French, American victory in the Revolution would not have been possible."
  3. Who were the Loyalists who fought for the King?
  4. Two decisive American victories came at Saratoga and Yorktown. A major British victory came at Camden. Select one and analyze how victory was secured.
  5. Discuss the social effects of the Revolution. In what areas was the revolutionary promise or spirit of independence and equality most or least fulfilled? How did military service support and change the spirit?
  6. Weak revolutionary movements sometimes rely on guerrilla warfare to frustrate an occupying power. To what extent did the Americans use this approach, and to what extent did they rely on conventional warfare.
  7. Identify some of the misperceptions and false assumptions about Americans that hindered the British war effort.
  8. Describe the basic British strategy during the Revolution. What mistakes could they have avoided? Could they have defeated the Americans?
  9. Both sides had trouble raising enough soldiers. Explain the problems--and the motivations of the soldiers who did enlist.

1. In Search of Independence

The British were not willing to give up their great north American colonies without a fight. No colony anywhere had ever broken away from the Empire (and none would again until India broke loose in 1946). The British had a powerful professional army, the world's best navy, and a highly efficient financial and political system to back them up. The Americans had politicians aplenty, but almost no experienced soldiers, no warships, few cannon, and little gunpowder. Although the patriots easily seized control of the colonial and local governments in each of the 13 colonies in 1775, they had no real national government, and no money or credit. Thus the most difficult and most important mission ever given the American military came in 1775: throw out the British army, repel the Royal Navy, and preserve American liberties. In July 1776 the charge was expanded--to wrest total independence for the new nation, the United States of America. The challenge seemed impossible. Britain had a large professional army, the greatest navy afloat, three times the population, and a comprehensive administrative system that raised and spent money efficiently. Add to that her allies: fierce Indian tribes to the rear, Canada to the north, the Floridas to the South, and untold numbers of Loyalists right in the middle. The Americans had weak state governments which collected few taxes, a new, even weaker national government that lacked any taxing power at all. None of the states had standing armies or navies. Fortifications and harbor defenses were decrepit. Only in New England was the militia system anything more than an archaic joke. No one in America yet knew how to make gunpowder or cast cannon. George Washington, the new commander in chief, had never led as many as a thousand soldiers, and the other generals were even less experienced. A more subtle problem was that the Americans sought independence in large part because they feared a standing army--a force that would negate the republican government they sought--yet they needed a standing army to fight the Crown.

Britain threatens the colonies

The revolution occurred in the hearts and minds of Americans in 1774-1776 as they realized that continued subservience to the British Empire was impossible. After the Seven Years War London wanted stifling controls on the colonial economy and on westward expansion. They insisted that the colonists pay a share of the cost of empire through new taxes, but refused to allow representation in Parliament. Ominously London sent thousands of regular army troops--was this to protect the colonists from nonexistent threats, or to protect the Royal officials from the anger of the people? Nothing seemed more dangerous to the precious political liberties of the Americans than the sort of standing army Britain was forcing upon them. The colonists responded by setting up their own shadow government, including local committees and (beginning in 1774) a Continental Congress. The Empire thought it knew how to suppress rebellions--in 1715 and 1745 it had ruthlessly crushed the Highlanders in Scotland; in the 17th century it had taken control of Ireland in campaigns that killed thousands of Catholic rebels and left the Protestants in total domination. King George III was a hard-liner unwilling to yield to the rebels, and he was loyally supported by his Prime Minister Lord North and the entire London bureaucracy.

Crisis in Massachusetts

Tensions came to a head in Massachusetts. In late 1773 the Boston radicals disguised as Indians dumped a shipment of tea into the harbor in protest. Next spring Parliament passed the Coercive Acts that imposed near martial law and suspended traditional civil liberties and economic freedom. Congress denounced the Acts, called for boycotts of British goods, and recommended that the militias ready their weapons. Georgia became the 13th colony represented in the Congress; however, Canada and 16 smaller British colonies in North America remained loyal. The French Catholics in Canada much preferred the tolerance of London to the anti-Catholic Yankees; they stayed loyal, as did the wealthy sugar planters who controlled the numerous West Indian colonies. East Florida, West Florida and Newfoundland were so small, so new, and so dominated by the British army and navy that they stayed loyal. Nova Scotia (just north of Maine) was the curious case. It had been settled largely by New Englanders, who favored Congress. Yet it was an isolated island, easily controlled by the Royal Navy from its powerful base in Halifax. Protests were put down, and the people stayed neutral, pouring their emotions into religious revival rather than revolution. The 13 revolting colonies were the largest, richest, and most developed in the Empire. London had no intention of letting them go free. General Thomas Gage fortified Boston and raided nearby towns where rebels had stored munitions. The people of Massachusetts responded by setting up a provisional government, training militia units, and detecting and suppressing Loyalists and spies. A system of "minute men" was established, so that any alarm would be answered immediately.

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The Americans had sympathizers in Britain, but not enough. Parliament rejected conciliation by a 3 to 1 margin, and Gage was ordered to aggressively enforce the Coercion laws. More troops arrived, along with the generals who would later replace Gage and command the main British armies during the war, Sir William Howe (fall 1775 to spring 1778), Sir Henry Clinton (1778 to 1782) and John Burgoyne. All of them failed at their mission--perhaps because London political considerations made it impossible to remove careless generals who repeatedly lost tactical opportunities, quarreled or failed to coordinate with one another, and muffled the strategic designs that London drew up. On April 18, 1775, Gage sent 700 elite troops to Concord, 21 miles from Boston, to seize illegal munitions stored there. Major John Pitcairn, second in command of the unit, a month before had written that "one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights." As the British moved out just before midnight, Paul Revere and other patriots spread the alarm alerting the "Minutemen" militia in twons along the route. The minute men of Lexington tried to stop the British; someone unknown fired the first shot; the Redcoats pushed on to Concord. As the British commander reported afterwards:

I marched on the evening of the 18th inst. with the corps of grenadiers and light infantry for Concord, to execute your Excellency's orders with respect to destroying all ammunition, artillery, tents, &c., collected there, which was effected, having knocked off the trunnions of three pieces of iron ordnance, some new gun carriages, a great number of carriage wheels burnt, a considerable quantity of flour, some gunpowder and musket balls, with other small articles thrown into the river. Notwithstanding we marched with the utmost expedition and secrecy, we found the country had intelligence or strong suspicion of our coming, and fired many signal guns, and rung the alarm bells repeatedly; and were informed, when at Concord, that some cannon had been taken out of the town that day, that others, with some stores, had been carried three days before.... Turning back to Boston, the British professionals were stunned to see the American amateurs were fighting back. Three thousand militia lined the route, firing muskets from behind stone fences. ("The Americans," noted General Israel Putnam, "are not at all afraid of their heads, though very much afraid of their legs; if you cover these they will fight forever.") The Yankee assault was well-planned and well-carried out. Only the timely arrival of a rescue party saved the redcoats, who suffered 270 casualties (versus 93 American casualties).**
Note on terminology. "Casualty" includes dead, wounded, captured, deserted and missing. It represents the number of men permanently or temporarily lost to the command. The missing were usually captures or deserters, and most did not return to the war. Many of the wounded soon died. "Regular" means full-time, long-term soldiers, either British or American (the latter known as Continentals.) Contrast with "militia", who were temporary citizen-soldiers, commanded by state officers. The U.S. side is variously called American, patriot, Congress, rebel, Yankee, Continental, allied or Whig. The King's side is called British, redcoat, Tory, Hessian or Loyalist. The Loyalists were Americans who supported the King. "Rank and file" refers to privates and corporals.

Patriots aroused after Lexington
Fast riders sped word of the British aggression and American resistance up and down the coast. The news reached General Putnam, age 67, as he was plowing his Connecticut farm. He instantly unhitched a horse, left word for his militia to follow, and galloped the 100 miles in 18 hours. Within days Boston was surrounded by 10,000 patriots, enlisted for the year, armed with muskets and ready to fight. Their opportunity came in June, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, when 2,400 redcoats attacked 1,600 patriots dug in on Breed's Hill (in front of Bunker Hill). Crouching low behind their breastworks, the Yankees were told to wait--"Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" The first two waves were mowed down; finally a bayonet charge took the hill. The redcoats won, at a stunning cost of 1,054 casualties, including a high proportion of officers. The Americans lost 400 casualties, and shattered the illusion that they would not or could not stand up to well-trained regulars. Over the winter of 1775-76, the Americans sent expeditions to conquer Canada. With no support forthcoming from the French Catholics in Canada, the American invasion was hopeless. Short of supplies, outnumbered, and too reckless, the Americans were whipped and Canada would continue to fly the Union Jack. The Americans could not assault Boston itself without artillery. Led by Henry Knox, a brilliant clerk who had read military treatises and knew how to seize the moment, the patriots obtained 60 heavy guns from the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga, in upstate New York. Water traffic was controlled by the Royal Navy, so Knox organized ox teams that hauled the heavy guns across the snows and ice in winter 1775-76. When the guns finally arrived in Boston in March, 1776, the British in Boston were defenseless; they withdrew to the great British naval base in Halifax, Canada. The rebellion faced by their old enemy pleased the French, who began secret shipments of gunpowder, muskets and other vitally needed munitions, and allowed American privateers to use ports in France and the French West Indies.
Independence Declared

In full control of nearly all parts of the 13 states, and realizing they had to break from London once and for all if they ever were to receive French aid, the new United States of America declared its independence in July, 1776. This was a proclamation of a state of affairs that had taken effect at least a year earlier, when the Continental Congress took over the forces around Boston and formally established a Continental Army. The army's mission thus was to preserve the status quo of a new nation that had seized control of its fate. The British had to crush that symbol, and reassert the supremacy of the Crown. The Royal Navy blockaded the American coastline. Washington and his armies had to trudge overland, while the British forces could be moved rapidly by water from point to point. Although they had the naval power to seize any one point, Britain never had the manpower to occupy all the rebellious colonies simultaneously. At least 200,000 soldiers would have been needed for that, and probably more. London did expand its army, but service was unpopular and it could not raise enough troops. Efforts to hire mercenary armies around Europe turned up only 30,000 men rented out by the rulers of Hesse-Cassel and other tiny countries. (The rulers were paid so much per soldier, with a bonus for those killed.) The 3,000-mile-long supply line drastically limited the number of troops that could be maintained in America. The supply line furthermore had to be constantly protected from American privateers (privately operated armed merchant ships with a license to attack British merchantmen.) London assumed that a small number of radicals, wholly unrepresentative of American opinion, had seized control. The solution was not to negotiate but to overthrow them. The reasonable Americans would see their duty as British citizens, and renew their allegiance to the Crown once they saw the invincible British army had arrived.

map of North America

British map of Theatre of War, 1776

2. Two Armies Contest North America

General in chief George Washington
When Congress took charge of the unorganized army at Boston in June, 1775, its consensus choice for commander in chief was George Washington, age 45. His military experience totaled five years in the French and Indian War, when he became colonel in charge of all Virginia forces at age 23. Now a wealthy tobacco planter, slaveholder, and political leader of Virginia, he had the stature, the energy, and the bearing of leadership the Americans needed. Washington had three roles during the war. In 1775-77, and again in 1781 he led his men against the main British forces. He lost many of his battles--save the last one--but always survived to fight another day. Second he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned a German professional named von Steuben to train them. Steuben's open homosexuality annoyed the straight Americans, but they needed all the help they could get. Washington had the major voice in selecting generals for command, and in planning their basic strategy. The quality of these choices was mixed, as some of his favorites (like John Sullivan) never mastered the art of command. Eventually he found men who got the job done, like Nathaniel Greene. The American officers never equalled their opponents in tactics and maneuver, and consequently they lost most of the pitched battles. Washington himself was defeated repeatedly near Boston ("Bunker Hill"), New York City ("Long Island") and Philadelphia ("Germantown"). The great American successes, at Saratoga and Yorktown, came from trapping the British far from base with much larger numbers of troops. Third, and most important, Washington was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown--the representative man of the Revolution. American Republicanism was the opposite of British aristocracy, and Washington proved a much better national symbol for his nation than King George III did for Britain. The Virginian's enormous stature and political skills kept Congress, the army, the French, the militias, and the states all pointed toward a common goal. By voluntarily stepping down and disbanding his army when the war was won, he permanently established the principle of civilian supremacy in military affairs. And yet his constant reiteration of the point that well-disciplined professional soldiers counted for twice as much as erratic amateurs helped overcome the ideological distrust of a standing army. There was unanimous sentiment that he had to be the first president when the first election took place in 1788.

The American "Continental Army"
The Continental army was organized along British lines. Washington was General (three stars) and Commander in Chief, reporting directly to Congress. He personally commanded the Main Army, which varied in strength from 6,000 to 18,000, and directed army wide staff commands. Washington supervised major generals (two stars) who commanded geographical divisions: Eastern (New England), Northern (New York), Highlands (West Point area of New York), Middle (New Jersey to Delaware), Southern (Virginia--the largest state--plus the Carolinas and Georgia), Western and Canadian. When the Main Army moved into a division, Washington assumed overall command there; most of the time it was based within a radius of 40 or 50 miles outside New York City. The divisional armies fluctuated in size, but usually comprised one to five brigades. Brigades comprised about 2,500 men commanded by a brigadier (one star) general. Congress approved 73 generals, 16 of whom had been officers in the British army (usually captains or majors), 36 in the colonial militias, and 21 with zero previous military experience. All that Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox knew about warfare came from reading manuals and military history, yet Greene was one of the two or three best fighters (after Benedict Arnold), and young Knox (born 1750) brilliantly handled Washington's artillery.

The brigades were the main fighting units of the army. They were made up of five to ten regiments, which were called battalions when in battle. Some regiments were "Continental," that is, organized and controlled by Congress, with long terms of service. Other regiments were "militia," organized and controlled by the states, with short terms of service (usually one year). In addition to these standard regiments, when the Americans were doing well local militia companies suddenly showed up; they would depart whenever they pleased. Washington was infuriated at his lack of control over them. "They come in you cannot tell how, go, you cannot tell when; and act, you cannot tell where; consume your provisions, exhaust your stores, and leave you at last in a critical moment." He insisted that only a regular army with long terms of service could be properly trained, officered, moved from place to place, and counted upon to be around for a long campaign. But Washington was too awed by the professionalism of the British Army, and anyway the new American political and financial systems were much too weak to support a large standing army. Furthermore, most patriots deeply distrusted one. To this day historians debate whether in actual battle the militia fought as well as the Continentals. The Maryland Line and Delaware Line (militia) were outstanding, performing almost as well as the British regulars in executing tactical moves on the battlefield. In any case, a large standing army would have been a tempting target for the main British force. The basic British strategy in 1775-1778 was to track down and destroy Washington's main army. Its destruction would likely have led to an American loss of independence.
American Rifleman

A colonel commanded an American regiment, assisted by a lieutenant colonel and a major.* They usually were the organizers
* The colonelcy of a British regiment was honorific; the lieutenant colonel was in actual command.

who recruited the regiment in the first place. The regulars had volunteered for different lengths of time (one year, three, the duration of the war), and regiments whose term had expired wanted to march home. Half the veteran officers and sergeants, and perhaps a third of the privates reenlisted; the rest called it a war and went home. It grew harder and harder to raise troops. Cash bounties were offered, a draft was imposed. A draftee could escape by paying a fine or finding a substitute; older men sent sons or younger brothers. The more established young men volunteered for war first; by 1777 it was the poor, the unemployed, immigrants, blacks, and drifters who entered the army. To organize the regiment a colonel's staff included a surgeon, quartermaster (supply officer), chaplain, paymaster, and an adjutant to quill the paperwork. The fighting power of the regiment comprised seven to ten companies, each commanded by a captain, assisted by a lieutenant or two, an ensign (the lowest ranking officer), four sergeants (who ran things), four corporals, and a drummer and fifer (to issue commands in battle). The privates, 30 to 70 per company, carried muskets, pitched their tents, cooked whatever food was available, and did what the corporals and sergeants ordered. The weakness of the American army was that the sergeants and officers had little or no experience in warfare, and the generals displayed more genius for back-room politics than for battlefield action. The Americans had great difficulty carrying off complex, coordinated maneuvers. When Washington tried a four-pronged attack at Germantown in 1777, everything collapsed in confusion. At least Washington learned his lesson: he did not have an army that could maneuver as well or fight on equal terms, so he never again tried.

Most regiments were strictly infantry, armed just with muskets and bayonets. Sometimes elite troops were assigned to a light infantry company, which was always kept up to full strength. Brigade commanders would assemble all their light infantry companies into a special battalion for special missions. The British used light infantry more often and more effectively than the Americans, because their command and control structure worked better. A brigade might have one artillery company, with perhaps an artillery regiment assigned to department headquarters. Cavalry units (which fought on horseback) were rarely used. Dragoons were infantry who rode horses, but dismounted to fight. They appeared in southern campaigns, but were not used more often because few Americans owned suitable mounts, and the British could not handle the logistics of sending horses and fodder across the Atlantic. Furthermore Washington never learned to appreciate the strong advantages of mounted forces in covering great distances. On paper a regiment numbered 500 to 1,000 men. But it probably was not at full strength in the first place. At any one time, some soldiers were sick, some assigned elsewhere, some captured or dead or deserted, or just vanished. Having 350 men fit for duty was usual. When new recruits arrived they usually came in new regiments, but sometimes they filled out understrength old ones. Every year or two old regiments might be merged, reorganized or even disbanded as their one or three year enlistment terms expired.

Associated with each regiment were civilian sutlers (who sold food and clothes in a sort of post exchange, or PX), wagoners, and often their wives. These women washed, cooked, sewed, nursed, and maintained morale, and were entitled to half rations. (Very few were prostitutes.) British and German regiments typically had far more camp followers; apparently American women disliked that kind of life. The Americans, "not being used to doing things of this sort, choose rather to let their linen, etc., rot upon their backs than to be at the trouble of cleaning 'em themselves." The lack of women had more dangerous consequences: "Many of the Americans have sickened and died of the dysentery brought upon them in great measure through an inattention to cleanliness. When at home their female relations put them washing their hands and faces and keeping themselves neat and clean, but being absent from such monitors, through an indolent needless turn of mind, they have neglected the means of health, have grown filthy, and poisoned their constitution by nastiness." Everyone scratched away at the parasitic mites that burrowed into the seams of dirty clothing. Those itching from scurvy were in fact seriously ill, and were sent to the regimental field hospital. It was a rude hut where the surgeon, surgeon's mate, and nurses (camp followers) did would little they could.

Disease killed far more soldiers than did combat. Of the 100,000 to 150,000 men who served in U.S. forces at one time or another, about 6,800 died in battle, while disease carried away 10,000 in camp and 8,500 in British prisons. Putting thousands of men in close quarters, with bad sanitation and poor hygiene, was the prescription for epidemics. The care of the wounded was rudimentary; neither side had an ambulance service or corps of medics to apply first aid and rush the wounded back to field hospitals. A delay of several hours before any medical attention often meant bleeding to death, or the onset of fatal gangrene. Punctures made by bayonets were usually clean wounds with deep gashes; bayonets either killed immediately or offered a good chance for survival in an otherwise healthy soldier. The main function of bayonet charges, however, was not to stab the enemy but to frighten him into running away. Iron shrapnel from artillery and the lead musket balls produced torn, jagged wounds. Unlike the steel-jacketed high-velocity bullets of the late nineteenth century, the low-velocity one-ounce musket balls flattened on impact, ripped up flesh, traumatized tissue, and splintered bones. Chest, stomach and groin wounds were hopeless. Wounds of the face, neck and legs demanded immediate attention for there was still hope if the man did not go into shock. Blood transfusion was unknown so the surgeon stopped the bleeding with a tourniquet, calmed the wide-eyed patient with a slug of rum, opened the wound with a scalpel, and removed the fragments with forceps (or dirty fingers). The wound was cleaned with lint soaked in oil, bandaged, and changed daily. A serious leg or arm wound required immediate amputation to forestall gangrene; the operation took a half hour. Since the incision was made through healthy tissue, there was a better chance for survival if not much blood had been lost. Unfortunately, if the surgical patients were kept in the hospital more than a few days, they would probably catch, and perhaps die from an infectious disease--dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, or malaria. The surgeons were poorly trained (many not even doctors), and supplies were always short. Scarcely any effective drugs were available, though many remedies were tried, especially emetics and laxatives.

When a regiment was on the march, it would send out foragers to buy (or steal) whatever food, fodder and fuel the local farmers had not hidden away. British, French and German supply officers paid real money. Americans could pay only with depreciating Continental paper, or in near-worthless certificates. The job of forager was as unpopular as it was essential, and often was assigned to black troops. In the lightly populated interior South, food supplies were scarce and marching armies often suffered. The officers were responsible for their own food and clothing, using their pay or, more often, their private wealth. The pay, when it occasionally arrived, seldom was enough to buy much. Their relatives sent along boots and blankets. The privates, however, depended on the quartermaster corps for shoes, clothes, blankets, and everything else, and routinely were disappointed. They mutinied from time to time--the only effective way they could signal Congress and the people that the system was not working. The mutinies were not refusals to fight, nor attacks on officers, and the men calmed down quickly enough when their generals and colonels promised them relief. As for the officers, they demanded, and finally got, a Congressional promise of eventual pensions (half-pay for life) and land grants in the west.

Why Fight?
The British officers were convinced the Americans would not and could not fight.
  • Hilarious anecdotes circulated about their inept soldiering in the French and Indian War and the impossibility of disciplining them according to European standards. "They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men," insisted the First Lord of the Admiralty. The British misperceptions of the American character typified the widening gap between London and the fast maturing colonies. The rank and file British soldiers were recruited from very low social ranks, were treated shabbily by their sergeants and officers, and held in contempt by everyone. The British private was a cog in the machine, not an individual. His duty was to obey his superiors immediately, without flinching or thinking. The main tactic of the infantry was to march as close as possible to the enemy, form ranks, then fire volleys of muskets regardless of enemy fire. Severe flogging was the punishment for any disrespect; the European ideal was that the soldier should fear his officers more than the enemy. British privates enlisted for life, attracted by the free food and clothing. Patriotism was scarcely a factor. American militiamen were part-time soldiers and full-time citizens and voters. They were individualistic, with their own needs and priorities, so they evaluated military service on their own terms. The instructions for recruiters in Maryland required "great Regard to moral Character; Sobriety in particular." "You are to inlist no Man who is not able bodied, healthy and a good marcher, nor such whose attachment to the liberties of America you have cause to suspect. Young hearty robust men who are tied by Birth or Family Connections to this County; and are well practiced in the use of firearms are by much to be preferred." Recruits thus were integrated into their community, and reflected its values, aspirations and fears. The militia elected its own junior officers, and judged their performance with a critical eye. When their enlistments expired, they went home. (Deserters went home too, and the community protected them. The American desertion rate was a very high 20 to 25 per 100 men per year.)

    Did Patriots lack discipline?
    The Americans were notoriously sloppy, dirty and careless; formations were ragged, and routine discipline was at best erratic. To the martinets in red coats this proved that the rebels did not know how to make war. American officers had to learn how to elicit self discipline among their men. Parades and smart uniforms enhanced pride in the unit, which gradually became the community the long-terms regulars identified with. As drill master von Steuben later explained to a Prussian visitor, "You say to your soldier, 'Do this' and he doeth it; but I am obliged to say 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it." The redcoat was easy to order around. The Americans only followed orders they felt were correct; if the scene were too dangerous they would run away. If the generals were doing poorly they would go home. Conversely, if the officers could motivate them they would fight well, and if the enemy seemed in trouble they would suddenly show up by the thousands, as they did at Boston (1775), Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). The American militiaman, contrasted with a redcoat regular, was better educated, more easily trained, more accustomed to wilderness more acclimated to the disease environment, and more familiar with firearms. He was a full participant in the war because this was a struggle his home community was waging for its own independence and freedom.

    British soldiers
    The British army of 1775 had a fearsome reputation that was not fully deserved. Britain normally fought its wars by subsidizing allies, like Prussia, that did the real fighting. The army was therefore quite small for a global empire. In 1775 it had worldwide only 49,000 men: 39,000 infantry, 2,500 artillery, and 6,900 cavalry. The average soldier, aged 30, had been nine years in the ranks, but that did not mean he was well trained. Since there had been no warfare for a dozen years, only the older men had battlefield experience. In peacetime the British army was scattered about in small units, the men often boarded in private homes. In America the men lived in barracks and were drilled six hours a day, with calisthenics, goose-step marching, and musket loading. However, there were no field exercises that would give the officers a feel for maneuvering thousands of men. Parliament expanded the forces quickly after Lexington, authorizing 40,000 more soldiers. Enlistment meant lifetime service, however, and only the most destitute men looked upon it is an attractive deal. They were not quick studies, and had narrow perspectives. Never were they permitted to take any initiative or question their orders. did not know what they were fighting for, except to avoid the iron discipline of their sergeants and lieutenants. The Hessians were German soldiers hired from their princes by the British. Americans appealed to them to desert and join the American cause. Most Hessians looked at Americans as ferocious savages, but some changed their opinions. Hessian prisoners were held in German-speaking areas of Pennsylvania, and hired out to local farmers. Only 60 percent of the mercenaries returned to Germany; 23 percent died; 17 percent deserted and became Americans.

    British Officers
    Europeans measured the qualities of officers not in terms of initiative, ingenuity or community ties, but in terms of honor and elevated social status. British officers were gentlemen, or even titled aristocrats who had purchased their commissions for huge sums of money. They had not attended a military academy; aristocrats thought their status alone made them deserving of command. Warfare was a way of enhancing the honor of their family; military hierarchies reflected social hierarchies, with a vast gap between top and bottom. The American armies had an amazingly small social differential between officer and private-- typified by the story of the captain-barber cutting his men's hair, or the colonels who cobbled boots for prisoners. According to the "Republican" or "Whig" ideology that had seized the American mind, it was the duty of every citizen to work for the good of the community. Sacrifice, especially the risk of life in battle, was the highest form of virtue. The bravest soldiers, the ones most dedicated to the cause, were therefore the ones with the highest virtue, and thus deserved to be officers. Their men ought to follow their orders not because of aristocratic status, or obedience to the King, but because the officers most nearly embodied the spirit of liberty and community. The officers had to uplift the men, help them reach their full potential as true Americans. Conversely, the most horrible status was that of traitor: the person who put alien allegiance ahead of civic virtue and loyalty to community. The Loyalists were traitors, and worst of all was Benedict Arnold, the hero who became a turncoat. King George, by the Coercion Acts and the imposition of martial law, was challenging the very existence of an autonomous American community. To give in would be slavery; to resist, the highest form of virtue. "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" called out Patrick Henry of Virginia. "I know not what course others may take, but for me give me liberty or give me death!"

    Discusses the anomaly of slave-owning Americans demanding freedom.

    3. The New York City Disaster

    The glorious spring of 1776 gave way to disasters in the summer and fall for the fledgling Continental army and its inexperienced commander. The British Royal Navy had complete control of the seas (since the French were still neutral). They could move large forces anywhere on the coastline much faster than the Americans could build defenses or march in reinforcements. As Washington discovered, "The amazing advantage the Enemy derive from their Ships and the Command of the Water, keeps us in a state of constant perplexity and the most anxious conjecture." Throughout the war the British strategy focused on cities. They realized that the colonies did not have a true center like London, but the cities were all accessible by sea, and they all contained large Loyalist contingents who wined and dined the British officers, leaving the mistaken impression that most Americans "really" favored the King. New York City was a prime target--it had the best port in the colonies, and could be used to isolate the New England region. Congress demanded that Washington defend Manhattan island (population 22,000) and nearby Long Island. But any defense was hopeless in the face of 30 British warships with 1,200 guns, and 10,000 sailors, not to mention the hundreds of transports that carried nearly half of the British army--32,000 trained regulars. This powerful force-- 45% of the Royal Navy and by far the most formidable fighting unit on the globe--was assembled only because King George III himself demanded action, and his minister for American affairs Lord George Germain brilliantly solved the logistic challenge. It was commanded by Major General William Howe and his older brother Admiral Earl Howe. Fortunately for the American cause, the Howes were trying to be conciliatory; a massive show of force on land and a tight blockade at sea would show the Yankees how insane their rebellion was, inducing them to accept the generous pardons which Howe was prepared to offer. Conciliation would be a better route to reunion, Howe felt, than annihilation of the rebel armies. But annihilation it nearly was. Washington foolishly divided his 28,000 men between Long Island and Manhattan, and neglected to defend his flanks. Instead of charging head-on, as they did in Boston, the Redcoats used their mobility to land troops in the rear, A surprise amphibious landing trapped Washington at the Battle of Long Island (Aug 1776). Miraculously he evaded the fleet and escaped to Manhattan. But another amphibious landing trapped him again. A second miraculous escape took Washington north of the city.

    click here for map from West Point Atlas

    Aftermath of defeat
    Washington had been whipped. Any remaining American taste for offensive warfare like the siege of Boston or the invasion of Canada dissolved in the face of British superiority in numbers and assault capability. Disorganization, shortages of supplies, fatigue, sickness, and above all, lack of confidence in the American leadership resulted in a melting away of untrained regulars and frightened militia. As Washington grumbled, "The honor of making a brave defence does not seem to be sufficient stimulus, when the success is very doubtful, and the falling into the Enemy's hands probable." The Connecticut contingent shrank from 8,000 to 2,000 in a matter of days. At White Plains. north of New York City, Washington again lost, and had to retreat to the hills of New Jersey. Meanwhile two major American forts, Lee and Washington, were surrounded and captured with 2,800 prisoners and the loss of sorely needed artillery and supplies. Manhattan and Long Island would fly the Union Jack until 1783. In December, 1776, the British seized control of New Jersey. The defeats were humiliating, but indecisive because the Howes neglected their opportunities to crush the insurgents. After all the casualties, captures, departures and desertions, Washington had only 16,000 men left--half the force he started with. He would never again battle the main British army, but would try to pick away at detachments and outposts. He knew the Redcoats could seize any city or other point they chose, but the new nation was so decentralized that it had no nerve center to be immobilized. Above all, Washington's goal was to keep his army alive as proof that the Revolution persisted.

    Washington Strikes Back
    Washington, however, was not finished. On Christmas Day, 1776, he crossed the ice-filled Delaware River and surprised the Hessian winter encampment at Trenton, New Jersey. Over 900 of the 1,400 Germans were captured, and 22 killed; only 4 Americans were dead. Washington followed up this brilliant stroke with a lightning attack on Princeton, New Jersey, on January 2. The overcautious General Howe decided to retreat to New York, abandoning New Jersey and thousands of Loyalist supporters. Only a small part of the great British army had been defeated, and yet New Jersey was lost. Washington broke all the rules. Well- behaved armies spent six "winter" months (December through May or June) in camp, not in the field. It was rude indeed to interrupt Hessians sleeping off their Christmas parties. And it was audacious to challenge a much larger, much better equipped enemy with a ragged, hungry little force. But battles are won by audacity, and Washington's bold moves revived patriot spirits and demonstrated to the British that conciliatory tactics would never bring the Americans to heel.

    4. Counter-Revolutionary Warfare

    If this was a revolution, the British needed a counter- revolutionary policy. Assuming the ringleaders were few and easily suppressed was a cardinal mistake, delaying any effective policy until after 1776. By then it was too late. To control an area the insurgents had to accomplish three goals: win the allegiance of more people, in terms of both active support and passive acquiescence. Then the rebels had to construct a viable organization. The organization needed identity (badges, flags), recruiting capability, weapons, training, leadership, ties to the national movement, and a secure sanctuary in case in case of attack. Finally the insurgents had to crush the opposition's will to exist through techniques that ranged from ostracism to seizure of property, imprisonment, and execution. In the 1770s the patriots were younger, more committed, more vigorous, less attached to the old order, more confident and better organized than the Loyalists. They would surely win unless the British successfully competed for the allegiance of the apathetics and neutrals, throttled the rebel organization, and revitalized the old government, especially as it touched people's lives.

    In Queens County New York, Loyalism was strong; about 12% of the people were patriots and 27% Loyalists. (The remainder were neutral, but some could be coerced one way or the other.) In addition to their rare numerical advantage, the Loyalists had the secure refuge, for New York City was only a few miles away. Furthermore the British commissary agents were paying farmers real gold for food, horses and fuel, while the rebels only had dubious paper money. In most of the country, the rebels early on seized control of local governments, and enlisted the militia on their side, but in Queens, the Loyalists won control of most of the towns. In most of the country, the religious configuration favored the rebels. The New England Congregationalists and the southern Anglicans, for example, supported the revolution. In Queens, one fifth of the people were Quakers. Ostensibly neutral, the Quakers in fact were comfortable with the royal regime that had protected them for so long. Queens had a large Anglican and Dutch Reformed population (both 4 to 1 Tory), and many Presbyterians (5 to 1 patriot). Most newspapers in the colonies favored the revolution, as did most orators. In Queens the propaganda seemed to favor the Crown. The atrocities and oppression the patriots talked about endlessly were not local matters; no one was afraid of Indians any longer. When the patriots failed to win control of the spirit of Queens in 1775, they bluntly arrested and attacked supporters of the Crown. This gave the Loyalists the image of reasonable moderates defending the community against terrorists.

    British lose popular support
    When the redcoats occupied Queens from 1776 to 1783 the inhabitants discovered what the American Revolution was all about. Civilians were treated with contempt--attacked, raped, arrested, plundered, cheated, cut off from decisions. The British instituted a harsh martial law just to make sure there would be no unrest. Loyalism faded in Queens; the men increasingly refused to volunteer for Loyalist militia units, or spy on the patriots. Only one fifth of the original Tories went into exile after 1783; the remainder seemed pleased that the new government had restored peace. Not even under ideal conditions could the aristocratic British win the hearts and minds of the equalitarian Americans. But even if the British had figured out a counter-revolutionary strategy, after Saratoga it was too late.

    5. Burgoyne's Plan: Split the Colonies, 1777

    Early in the war one of the more dashing and imaginative British generals, John Burgoyne, had a plan to divide and conquer:
       A large army of such foreign troops as might be hired to 
       begin their operations up the Hudson River; another army 
       composed partly of old, disciplined troops and partly of 
       Canadians, to act from Canada; a large levy of Indians, and a 
       supply of arms for the blacks, to awe the southern provinces, 
       conjointly with detachments of regulars; and a numerous fleet 
       to sweep the whole coast, might possibly do the business in one 

    Burgoyne won London's approval for most of his plan, and command of the army that was to march down from Canada and seize the Hudson River. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger would lead a second army across New York from west to east, meeting up with Burgoyne in Albany. Finally, redcoats in New York City might (or might not) march north and join the other two armies. Burgoyne's basic idea was that New England was the hotbed of revolution. Cut it off and the nine central and southern colonies would lack leadership and determination. Canada was used as the main base partly because there were 10,000 regulars there who could come down the long Montreal-Hudson River corridor. By 1777, however, a hundred thousand patriotic New Englanders lived within marching range of Burgoyne's route. A campaign north from New York City would have been much shorter, safer and more effective. But Howe was the senior officer, and would command such an attack. If Burgoyne was to lead the decisive blow he would have to start from Canada. He moved deep into enemy territory, far from the Royal Navy's guns, far from his base of supplies, and out of touch with supporting troops.

    click here for map from West Point Atlas

    Early success of invasion
    Everything went smoothly for Burgoyne, at first. In June, 1777, he easily captured the important American fort at Ticonderoga. St. Leger, with 1,800 Loyalists and Indians, besieged 750 Americans at Ft. Stanwix in central New York. Indians and Loyalists led by Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant ambushed one relief party. But then luck turned. General Benedict Arnold (still on the U.S. side) sent a half-wit into St. Leger's camp with exaggerated tales of vast American armies on the march. The Indians bought the story and deserted, forcing St. Leger to withdraw. He would not be at the Albany rendezvous. Burgoyne meanwhile slowly hacked his way through dense forest south of Ticonderoga. The Loyalists he expected to rally to the Union Jack were disappointingly few. The Indians proved very difficult to coordinate; Burgoyne complained they were too bloodthirsty and too eager for plunder to be effective soldiers. "My effort," Burgoyne explained, "has been to keep up their terror and avoid their cruelty." The French Canadians, though willing to defend their homes from the Yankees, refused to march south with Burgoyne's invading army. Howe, aware of Burgoyne's efforts, decided nonetheless to capture Philadelphia; he moved most of his army there by sea. Howe would not rendezvous in Albany either.

    Washington perhaps should have moved north to cut the Hudson River between Albany and New York. Instead he tried to defend Philadelphia, the national capital. Howe whipped him in set battles at Brandywine Creek in September, and at Germantown a month later. Rather than pursuing his elusive tormentor, Howe settled down to winter quarters in affluent Philadelphia, where the wealthy Loyalists entertained his troops lavishly. The British, with plenty of gold coin, never wanted for food or fuel. Washington's barefoot men shivered and starved all winter long at nearby Valley Forge. The commissary and quartermaster departments, which reported directly to Congress, had failed their mission. The main reason was a lack of transportation to move supplies to where they were needed, and a lack of long-term planning. Since the Royal Navy blockaded the ports and controlled the seas and major rivers, supplies had to be tediously moved overland by wagon; with the British in control of New York City and Philadelphia, circuitous routes were necessary.

    Poor British Intelligence

    The British lacked good intelligence about what was happening. In Europe the armies were so large, the space so small, and the population so numerous, that everyone knew where everyone else was. Vast, open, underpopulated America was a different world. In the first few years of the war, the British commander occasionally received reports, often garbled or contradictory or, worst of all, overoptimistic, but never handled them in systematic fashion. Howe in Philadelphia did not know whether Washington was camped 5 miles away or 105. Finally after four years of warfare, in May 1779, Clinton appointed his aide Captain John Andre as intelligence officer. The energetic young spymaster set up underground networks and systematically analyzed the inflow of data from spies, Loyalist informers, captured hostiles, and escaped British prisoners. Andre's most brilliant stroke was the purchase of the plans for the defense of West Point in 1780--in the process of which he was captured in disguise and hung. His successor perfected the British intelligence network. When the Pennsylvania regulars mutinied in January 1781, Clinton learned about it the same day as Washington. His emissaries offered to pay in cash the mutineers' back wages if they would defect, but the mutineers hanged them. When the New Jersey regulars mutinied three weeks later, Clinton learned about it before Washington did, but did not try anything. The royal spies were getting better--soon they reported that the French naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, was poorly guarded. Clinton decided on a surprise attack, but both Admiral Graves and General Cornwallis refused to follow his orders, and the opportunity passed. Spies correctly reported the secret moves of Washington and Rochambeau toward Virginia in 1781. This time Clinton misinterpreted the data, for it contradicted his firm belief that their attack would be against him in New York rather than against Cornwallis in Virginia. The best intelligence in the world proved useless when the command structure could not deal with it.

    6. Decisive Victory: Saratoga, 1777

    click here for maps and a detailed history of the battle of Saratoga

    After taking patriot strongholds at Crown Point and Ft. Ticonderoga, Burgoyne marched his redcoats south toward Albany, New York. He was far behind schedule because the Americans systematically blocked his way; his long train of unnecessary artillery prevented fast movement. Supplies of food and fodder were running short; his foragers found the countryside had been stripped. A cautious commander might have declared victory (because of the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga) and hurried back to Canada, as General Guy Carleton had done in nearly the same location a year earlier. But "Gentleman Johnny" was the proudest of the British generals--an amateur playwright with a flair for the dramatic. His sharp criticism of Carleton's retreat had given him this command in the first place. Success would end the war and make him the toast of London. By early August, Burgoyne was still far from Albany, and was running short of food. He sent 700 Hessians to Bennington, Vermont, to capture supplies, but only a handful returned. This was the his first indication of trouble--desperate trouble. The American militias had mobilized by the hundreds, by the thousands, and had whipped the Hessians at Bennington. Burgoyne was stunned to discover that Loyalists were refusing to join his army or supply provisions. "The great bulk of the country [upstate New York] is undoubtedly with the Congress in principle and in zeal.... Wherever the King's forces point, militia to the amount of three or four thousand assemble within twenty-four hours; they bring their own subsistence, and the alarm over they return to their farms." Burgoyne finally called for help, and in late September Clinton led 3,000 men--an inadequate force--to capture American forts around West Point. They never came closer than 100 miles to Burgoyne. His invading army, with 2000 British regulars, 500 Loyalists and 2500 Hessians, was outnumbered 2-1 and was trapped. On September 14 he crossed his Rubicon, to the west bank of the Hudson River, and headed inland. On September 19 he led an assault at Freeman's Farm in an attempt to move west of Bemis Heights. 4,200 redcoats encountered MG Benedict Arnold with 2,000 Americans. Colonel Daniel Morgan' riflemen and Major Henry Dearborn's light infantry were forced to withdraw after a Hessian envelopment of their right flank. The American commander, MG Horatio "Granny" Gates had only committed these troops at Arnold's insistence, and refused to give them artillery or reinforcements. At nightfall Gates conceded the field. He understood the futility of direct assaults, and by limiting his casualties to only 65 dead he had encouraged more militia to join his army. Furthermore, the British victory proved costly, since they lost 600 irreplaceable men.

    Crisis for British
    For the next three weeks Burgoyne stood paralyzed. An attack on September 20 or 21 might have sent the Americans running. Instead he waited for reinforcements from Clinton coming up the Hudson--waited, waited, waited. By October 3 the redcoats were hungry; quartermasters reduced rations by one-third. Casualties, desertions of Loyalists and Canadians, and sickness reduced the effectives to 5,000. Gates held all the trumps. New England militia companies, sensing the kill, were pouring into camp. The Americans now held a decisive 3:1 advantage. Gates carefully buttressed Bemis Heights with earthworks and breastworks; his army was being resupplied; and he knew the whereabouts and strengths of the British. Burgoyne realized it was impossible to retreat to Canada; he had to attack. On October 7 he again tried to move west of Bemis Heights. Gates sent Morgan and Dearborn to the British right, and BG Enoch Poor's 800 man brigade to its left. Riflemen high in the trees took deadly aim at redcoat officers. Soon, both British flanks were exposed and BG Ebenezer Learned's brigade in the center engaged two German battalions. Arnold, who had been relieved of command by Gates, suddenly jumped into the action and led Learned's brigade in a brilliant attack. The Germans retreated behind Balcarres Redoubt. Arnold then took command of all the troops and led an assault around Burgoyne's right which captured the critical Breymann's Redoubt. Arnold's horse was shot and his leg broken; Morgan and Dearborn continued the charge. (Today there is a monument at Saratoga to Arnold's patriotic leg.) The British retreated, but had nowhere to go. As Burgoyne noted, the American militias were clumsy in method and movement (because of inexperienced field officers), but they were disciplined, and showed the "sobriety, subordination, regularity and courage" needed to win battles. Burgoyne had lost another 600 men, including two generals. American casualties were only 200. Burgoyne put off his formal surrender at Saratoga until October 17. Since there was still a danger of Clinton's arrival, Gates gave very generous terms. The redcoats would disarm, march to Boston, sail for home, and promise never to return. The officers did go home, but Congress reneged and kept the others prisoner for the rest of the war.

    Overconfidence, poor strategy, amazingly confused coordination among Burgoyne, Howe and Clinton (which can be blamed on Lord Germain, in overall charge in London), and inadequate logistics destroyed a proud British army. Gates followed a simple, clear-cut strategy of blocking a force that was too small and too far from base. Sooner or later it had to surrender.

    7. The Meaning of Saratoga

    The original British strategy had failed totally. Clearly there was no way to defeat the Americans in classical battles-- Washington would either disengage, or, when the odds were highly favorable, capture another British army. Unless Britain did something radically innovative, the American colonies were lost. The strategy of sending Burgoyne overland from Canada to seize the Hudson was a fundamental strategic blunder. It played to the Americans' strength and failed to use the British fleet effectively at a time it controlled the seas. Instead the British should have seized West Point 50 miles north of New York City by overland attack, then sailed small, well-armed frigates up and down the Hudson River. This would have prevented movements of supplies or soldiers between New England and New York. Washington was more alert to the geography than his enemies were, and by 1778 he had West Point well defended. Saratoga was a shattering blow. The British lost 8,000 men (plus supplies and artillery) that would be hard to replace. The Americans kept control of a strategic waterway and prevented the enemy from splitting the new nation. Americans were excited to discover that they could indeed defeat the best soldiers of a supposedly invincible superpower

    British status threatened
    Even more decisively, the American victory undercut the entire world geopolitical position of Britain. France had long been eager to enter the war, and while Britain allowed its navy to rot, the French had built a powerful fleet and knit alliances across the continent. Paris stepped up essential munitions shipments and in February, 1778, signed a formal treaty with the U.S., becoming a fighting ally. Some aristocratic young officers joined the American army to serve under Washington, most notably the Marquis de Lafayette. France sent in regular troops, who were stationed in or near Rhode Island for most of the war, but who marched to Yorktown in 1781 and played a major role in the vioctory there. Even more important, the large French navy was now at war with the British navy. In 1779 Paris brought the Spanish Empire into the new anti-British alliance. Paris acted in part out of revenge at the loss of Canada in the Seven Years War (1763), and even more for practical geopolitical and commercial goals. Independence for the American colonies meant that France's historic adversary would lose the richest, fastest growing, and most strategically located colonies in the world. Indeed, they would become French allies, permanently tilting the balance of power in the North Atlantic and the flow of trade. Holland joined with France, as did Spain. Madrid had only one interest, the return of Gibraltar, which Britain had captured in 1704. Spain offered to join Britain in the war if it could get Gibraltar; when London refused, she joined the allies, attacked British outposts in Florida, and sent supplies to the Americans. (In the end, Britain kept Gibraltar and gave Florida to the Spanish.) In a stunning failure of diplomacy, Britain was unable to sign up any allies anywhere on the globe, and most neutrals even took hostile positions. This was a world war, but Continental Europe was controlled by the enemy or neutral. Britain would have to fight its war at sea, and the land battles in North America assumed minor importance in the large picture.

    Britain outnumbered
    Britain now was outnumbered in population and wealth, and worst of all, outgunned on the seas by an aggregate of 120 ships of the line to 90. The potential threat of the French fleet forced Clinton (now commander in chief) to evacuate Philadelphia in June, 1778. Yankees threatened his rear guard at the battle of Monmouth, but Clinton made good his escape to New York City. The Americans were lucky to get a draw at Monmouth. Their commander, the brilliant, experienced and erratic Charles Lee had lost control of the situation and had to be rescued by Washington. Lee complained bitterly, sought a court martial, was convicted and disgraced. (Decades later it was discovered that before Monmouth Lee had become a traitor who gave Howe a comprehensive plan to defeat Washington.) Monmouth was the last major battle in the North; for the next three years Washington positioned his army to make sure Clinton stayed in New York City. Washington could not talk the French into a joint attack on the well-defended city. The threat of the French navy meant that the bulk of Royal Navy had to be pulled out of North America and stationed near England to defend against a possible French-Spanish invasion. (The invasion was threatened twice, but never took place.) The alliance involved risks for the allies: Britain might well defeat their navies separately and capture one of the French West Indies, or French holdings in India. Eventually Britain did accomplish all that. Furthermore, Paris had a poor financial systems; the war bankrupted the treasury, weakened the monarchy, and hastened the French Revolution in 1789. What did the new allies contribute to the American cause? The Spanish, operating from New Orleans, cleared the redcoats out of the lower Mississippi Valley, seizing Mobile on the Gulf Coast, Pensacola (in British West Florida) and the Bahama islands. They also blockaded Gibraltar. These actions diverted British resources, and helped neutralize the pro-British Indians who were attacking patriot settlements along the Carolina-Georgia frontier.
    World War

    In larger perspective, the American alliance turned a tussle in a remote part of the globe into the fifth world war; indeed, the United States became a secondary theater. Britain would now have a very difficult time defeating the rebels. The fragility of its long supply line, the stretching of already thin resources, the continued corruption and weak and vacillating leadership in London, and the grave threats from every direction spelled doom. As the Earl of Sandwich (head of the Royal Navy) lamented:

        England till this time was never engaged in a sea war with 
        the House of Bourbon [France and Spain] thoroughly united, 
        their naval force unbroken, and having no other war or object 
        to draw off their attention and resources.  We unfortunately 
        have an additional war on our hands [vs USA] which 
        essentially drains our resources and employs a very 
        considerable part of our army and navy; we have no one friend 
        or ally to assist us; on the contrary all those who ought to 
        be our allies except Portugal act against us in supplying our 
        enemies with the means of equipping their fleet. 

    British last hope: regain the South
    With defeatism rampant among British officers and politicians, the independence of the United States seemed inevitable. Britain lacked a coherent strategy, or brilliant generals or admirals with the genius to reverse the tide. London probably wanted peace with the Americans, if it could keep, as King George insisted,
        Canada, Nova Scotia, [and] the Floridas...and the more they 
        are kept unlike the other [US] colonies the better, for it is 
        by them that we are to keep a certain awe over the abandoned 

    However, there was one hope left: by fighting on perhaps the British forces could hold onto Canada, the Great Lakes, and New York City, and also chop off the most Loyalist, least developed part of the United States, the lower South. Then if the peace conference could confirm these holdings, the British Empire would emerge tattered but with honor intact, and a great deal of valuable territory as well. The US would be independent, but would be weak and not a threat. The downside to fighting on was that the alliance might win outright. France did send a large professional army which, combined with Washington's forces, had the potential to overwhelm the British. With control of the sea in doubt, the Royal Navy could no longer guarantee it could reinforce or evacuate a British land army that got in trouble. London realized that for all its corruption it was financially stronger than the allies; perhaps by holding out it could push the alliance into economic collapse. The new British strategy therefore called for a stronger navy, and an invasion of the American South. The navy was rebuilt successfully; the invasion was a disaster.

    click here for 1780 campaign map from West Point Atlas

    8. The Southern Campaign, 1779-1781

    The Southern campaign of 1779-81 marked the climax of the war. London decided to "Americanize" the conflict by relying on supposedly numerous Loyalists, backed by small, elite units of the Royal Army commanded by bitter-end fighters who wanted vengeance for their dead comrades. It would be a civil war of Americans Loyalists against American patriots. British regulars would provide strategic direction and cadres of shock troops; the vast majority of silent Loyalists would rise up, take the arms provided by Britain, and seize the land. The plan would start where the rebels were weakest and Loyalists the strongest, the South Carolina and Georgia. The region was notorious for its large slave population, its discontented back country, and the fierce Indian tribes ready to go on the warpath. The territory was vast, lightly populated, flat, and open to the sea at every point--perfect conditions for the British. Washington was tied down outside New York City, and lacking transports he could not easily move his main army south. Furthermore, East Florida, and the nearby West Indies, provided bases for attack. The plan was to capture the main cities, Savannah and Charleston, then overwhelm Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. With the lower South under control, the redcoats would finally march north and conquer Virginia and Maryland. Loyalists would supposedly flock to the Union Jack, and form regiments that would man a series of forts, overpower their rebel neighbors and restore the old royal governors.

    The strategy was wholly fallacious at every point; London lacked reliable intelligence reports from the field, a clear understanding of its options, and the leadership and manpower needed to do the job. It should have sued for peace in 1778. One fallacy was the assumption that because few southerners had fought so far, few supported the patriot cause. In fact the individualistic Americans of the South would fiercely fight to defend their homes, land, and slaves--and their dream of an inland empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and beyond. The assumption of a large silent loyal force ready to be mobilized at a trumpet call was simply wrong. The British underestimated the anger and determination of the southern patriots, their ability to control local government, provision their own forces, and repress opponents. Some Loyalists did fight, but they were seeking revenge, not a better world. The patriots forced most Loyalists to flee or stay quiet by threatening their property, slaves and families.

    Role of slaves
    The slaves proved not to be a liability to the patriots. In 1775 the Tory governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore had promised freedom to all slaves who would flee and fight for the King. About 500 did come, but most soon died of disease. The Americans saw military service as the highest ideal of republican citizenship, and were very reluctant to allow slaves to fight. They did employ slaves as non-combatant auxiliaries, and eventually most of the southern states recruited slaves as soldiers, and emancipated them at the end of the war. The northern states enlisted about 5000 free blacks into combat units. Lord Dunmore's promise sparked fears of slave rebellions, which never took place. Neutral and even Loyalist slave owners were so angered with the risk of a slave revolt that they denounced Dunmore's move and forced him to abandon the call for a slave uprising. Historians have not been able to accurately count the number of blacks who served on the British side, but estimate that a few thousand black "pioneers" had noncombatant heavy labor jobs in the British army, and about 800 served in combat roles. Thousands of slaves were rented out to work on fortifications for both sides, but did not carry arms and were not considered "soldiers". The British seized thousands of slaves belonging to rebel owners, but they did not free them; they threatened to sell into slavery and blacks caught in American uniforms.
    For more on the role of slaves in the Revolution. See also Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock (1993). Also, Slavery in Virginia. The spirit of independence and freedom extended to slaves, Quakers in Pennsylvania argued. They formed The Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775, the first abolitionist organization.
    Native Americans prefer King George

    The British hoped to organize and arm Indians on the frotier to attack the Americans. While some Indians remained neutral, and some joined the patriots, the majority followed the British lead. In 1779 and again in 1782 mounted militia raids burned the wigwams and destroyed the corn fields of the Chicamagua and Creek tribes. The raids ruined the tribes' military capability, and through threat of starvation forced them to migrate west. The Cherokees, meanwhile, carefully remained neutral. Furthermore, Spanish victories over the British and Indians in theMississippi Valley and along the Gulf Coast cut off most of the British supplies. As a result and the Indians in the south and west only played a minor role in the war. (After the war, however, their lands were seized by the new nation and they were forced to rerlocate west, or south into Florida.)

    British supply problems
    Two silent factors further undercut the British strategy. The vast, underpopulated countryside provided little in the way of food for men or forage for horses. Armies quickly ran out of supplies, and hunger was a factor. More ominous was the disease environment. The South was an unhealthy place, especially in the hot, wet summers. Americans who were acclimated could survive, but the sickness rates were very high for the British and Hessians--often 20% were hospitalized, with many others feeling queasy from malaria. Morale suffered accordingly.

    Finally, the assumption of control of the sea was false. The French navy, of equal strength and more modern construction, had the capability of seizing control of the sea at any place at any time. Since supplies had to come by water, any British army in the South was in a precarious position. The new British strategy was doomed from the start.

    9. Problems of the American Army

    The Americans did not fully appreciate that the advantage had swung their way. After long years of warfare their early enthusiasm had worn thin. The solid farmer-citizens who signed up in 1775 largely abandoned Washington after the British seized New York in summer 1776, though many returned to temporary duty in state and local militias (especially in the Saratoga campaign of 1777). If patriotic appeal would not maintain a standing army, maybe money would; Washington discovered that ever larger bounties were needed to entice new recruits, and ever more grandiose promises of land bounties after the war. To be sure, there were penniless and poor men around who enlisted, plus adventurous youth who wanted to escape home--Washington's army was taking on the rag-tail appearance of the British regulars. However, the failure of Congress to appropriate adequate funds meant Washington's army was poorly equipped--and also meant the army harbored growing resentments against the civilians who failed to support them. The civilians, however, were convinced that corruption and profiteering had replaced earnest patriotism. Intrigues and cabals preoccupied Congress and the army high command. They led nowhere, but they did sour the mood. The treason of General Benedict Arnold, who tried to betray West Point in 1780 to Andre, was a stunning shock to patriots convinced of the higher morality of their cause. Inflation was out of hand, as Congress printed so much money that "not worth a Continental" became a catchword. The weak central government, the bumbling state governments, and the independence of militia units that quit and rejoined campaigns at will all cast doubt on whether the Americans could really fight a serious war. The bad commissary and quartermaster systems, and civilian indifference, degraded army morale--as did its own inactivity. When soldiers were ragged, hungry, wet, unpaid, and not doing any fighting, they could become nasty. The winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (December 1777 to June 1778) was horrible; 2,000 men went barefoot, one fourth of the 10,000 there died of disease and exposure. The encampment at Morristown, NJ, the following winter was even worse. Northern regulars, who did little fighting between Germantown (1777) and Yorktown (1781), mutinied several times to voice their protest, but in every case were quickly mollified. The southern soldiers, who suffered much worse conditions but who were actively fighting, did not revolt.

    10. Britain Invades the South, 1778-81

    The South was highly vulnerable to a British invasion. The new British strategy opened smoothly with the capture of Savannah in December, 1778. In February, 1780, Clinton brought 10,000 troops and 5,000 sailors in 90 ships to overwhelm Charleston. The forts defending the harbor were in disrepair, and the artillery no match for the British men of war. Worse, General Benjamin Lincoln allowed his 5,000 troops to be trapped inside the city. Clinton besieged Lincoln methodically, digging parallel lines, maintaining a heavy bombardment, and zigzagging forward to the next parallel. In accordance with classical rules of 18th century warfare, the city surrendered before the final assault. Lincoln's regulars were held on disease-ridden prison ships, while his militia were disarmed and allowed to go home. The Americans suffered the largest surrender in their history before the Civil War.

    Harsh British rule
    It was one matter to control the small city of Charleston, another to control the vast rural areas. The British believed they could easily outnumber the patriots if they armed a Loyalist militia. The British treated as traitors everyone who failed to take the oath to King George. This harsh policy escalated tension and pushed most of the neutrals toward the American cause. The new British commander, General Charles Cornwallis, established a chain of forts inland. He sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Legion of fierce Loyalist cavalry to hunt down rebel militia. Small American detachments besieged or assaulted the forts repeatedly, but were usually driven off. However, when the redcoats pursued the Americans, they lost more men by ambush, disease and desertion than they could replace. One British general offered a generous reward of 5 pounds for the return of any deserter, or 10 pounds for just his head. Food and fodder was scarce in the first place, but the Americans used a scorched earth policy to worsen the British logistical dilemma. The redcoats seized the farms and slaves of rebels, and installed Loyalists on them. Little food was produced, but much hatred and revenge. The British could hold the seacoast, the coastal towns, and a few inland forts, but they could not control the decisive locale, the countryside unless they hunted down the Americans. When small American armies (of 1,000 or 2,000 men) were defeated, they reformed as guerrilla bands. Terror and counter-terror were used. Tarleton warned the rebels, "If warfare allows me I shall give these disturbers of the peace no quarter; if humanity obliges me to spare their lives, I shall carry them close prisoners to Camden." His Legion whipped 300 militia at Waxhaw Creek, NC, and bayoneted the prisoners. "Tarleton's quarter!" the rebels spat, and promised to return the same. Old feuds resumed. Burned villages, crossroads massacres, late night arson, sudden assassination, slave stealing, rape and looting and desperate flight destroyed the social fabric of the Carolinas. Everyone realized that victory would go to the most ruthless men, with no quarter to the losers; no one recognized "innocent civilians."

    Fourteen-year old Andrew Jackson joined the North Carolina militia as a messenger, and was captured after a skirmish at a patriot's house. The raiders sacked and burned the house and insulted the women. A lieutenant ordered the lad to shine his boots. Jackson refused, and was slashed by the officer's sword. He carried the scars for the rest of his life, getting his revenge at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. They took Jackson's prized pistol, a smart little gun that would "kick like sixty when loaded with a three-quarter-ounce ball or with nine buckshot." A few days later a patrol captured a Loyalist with the pistol--evidence that he had been one of the raiders. The Loyalist was hung, and Andy got his pistol back. The Loyalist who took Jackson's horse also was captured, but he was not hung because he had been shot through the stomach before he surrendered and was already dying. As Jackson later reflected, we "did not lose many points in the game of hanging, shooting and flogging." The British hard-line position indicated they had abandoned their original aim of restoring the colonies to loyalty to the Crown. click here for 1781 campaigns from West Point Atlas

    Battles Won and Lost

    Washington sent General Horatio Gates to hold the South with a mere 1,400 regulars of the Maryland Line and the Delaware Line, and all the militia he could raise. Gates pushed his starved and sick troops through the swamps and woods of the border region between the two Carolinas, and suddenly encountered Cornwallis at the battle of Camden in South Carolina. Gates' frightened militia fled without firing a shot, the regulars retreated, and the American general personally set an all-time record by fleeing 180 miles on horseback in less than four days. His replacement General Nathanael Greene, by contrast, proved a sophisticated and successful guerrilla commander. So did the subordinate generals Francis Marion (the "Swamp Fox"), Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. Greene realized that Cornwallis could not replace his loses. The solution therefore was to fight a series of engagements, none decisive but all painful to the British. If there was a danger of defeat, the Americans would break off and let Cornwallis and Tarleton pursue them further from the British base of supplies. When the British split their forces to chase rebel bands, they ran a severe risk. In October, 1780, 900 backwoods militiamen, with hunting rifles, chased 1,000 Loyalist soldiers to King's Mountain. The rebels stormed the mountain, capturing or killing the entire British force. At Cowpens in January, 1781, Tarleton's 1,100 mounted troopers caught up with Daniel Morgan and his 1,000 militia riflemen. Morgan put General Pickens' raw soldiers in the front lines, told them to fire twice then retreat. The redcoats, sensing victory, charged with fixed bayonets, crashing into Morgan's second line, which wavered, then held. The American cavalry counterattacked Tarleton's right flank and the supposedly panicked Pickens' regiment suddenly reappeared on the left. It was a classical double envelopment. (Possibly Morgan knew about the similar action at the battle of Cannae, Italy, where Hannibal encircled and demolished the Romans in 216 B.C.) Tarleton lost 300 casualties and 525 prisoners out of 1,100 men; he barely escaped himself. At Guilford North Carolina in March, Greene tried to duplicate Morgan's tactics (every ambitious general for 2000 years has tried for a double envelopment), but Cornwallis drove him off the field. In the process Cornwallis lost a fourth of his men; more victories like that, London sighed, and they would lose their armies. The British were able to break American sieges of their frontier outposts, but realized they could not hold them forever. They therefore pulled back into the ports of Charleston and Savannah, giving the Americans control over the rural South.

    11. War at Sea

    To win the war the British should have used their navy much more effectively than they did. After winning the Seven Years War, London allowed its great fleet to literally rot--66 ships sank because of rotting wood. Improvements were made during the late 1770s, and by 1782 Admiral Hood was able to defeat the French fleet in the West Indies to regain control of the seas. But in the critical year 1781 the French, Spanish and Dutch allies had about 168 major warships of 60 or more guns, versus 114 for the British (and none for the U.S.)*
    * A "ship of the line" was a main battleship, built from 2,000 oak trees and flashing 74 or so guns, each effective out to 300 yards. Battles had to be fought close in, with marines essential as sharpshooters and boarding parties. Frigates were smaller ships carrying 30 to 50 guns, used for reconnaissance, convoys and raids. Sloops were even smaller and cheaper; their 20 guns were enough to overpower any merchant ship, or control rivers and bays.
    Britain's Transatlantic Supply Line

    With a 3,000 mile supply line, it was imperative for the British fleet to organize and guard convoys of food, fodder, money and supplies. The results were fair; although 342 merchant ships were captured in 1776, and 464 in 1777, many were recaptured and enough got through to ensure the redcoats barely adequate supplies. With the long coastline and numerous ports, the United States was vulnerable to assault from the sea; the Royal Navy did an effective job in capturing the major ports, New York City, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston and Savannah. Likewise it did moved troops around smoothly and without loss, as in the evacuation of Boston in 1775, the relief of Quebec in 1776 and the attack on Philadelphia in 1777. In defensive terms, the Royal Navy did protect the home island of Britain, the possessions in the West Indies, and the occupied American cities. Its efforts to blockade both the American and French coasts overstrained its resources.**

    ** When a merchant ship was captured, it was taken to port, it and its cargo were sold, and its sailors imprisoned. The victorious sailors would divide the prize money according to a fixed formula. A typical prize was worth several year's pay.

    Problems of Royal Navy

    The Royal Navy's main failures were its inability to destroy a major French fleet (until 1782), its failure to support Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, and its inability to defend or evacuate Yorktown in 1781. Why did the much vaunted British navy perform so poorly? The administration in London was heavily politicized, thoroughly corrupt, and blind to the larger issues of strategy. The officer corps was comprised of aristocrats more concerned with status and honor than with expertise and excellence. They showed timidity in battle and neglected to develop new tactics. Half the seamen were paupers who volunteered for the poor pay, putrid food, inhuman discipline and deadly scurvy and yellow fever of the navy only because there were no other jobs for them. The other half were merchant sailors who had been impressed (kidnapped) into service against their will. "Our fleets, which are defrauded by injustice, are first manned by violence and then maintained by cruelty," admitted one British admiral. Morale was bad, but mutinies of the sort that erupted in the 1790s did not come sooner because the spirit of liberty first had to be sparked by the American and French Revolutions. Thousands of American mariners were aware of the bad conditions in the Royal Navy. In reaction these "Jack Tars" became outspoken rebels, and signed up on the privateers that raided British shipping throughout the war.

    With its exposed position and slender resources, the United States could scarcely afford a navy of its own. American ships were few. Congress saw a need for prestige, however, and quickly authorized a navy and marine corps. The Navy was unable to break the British blockade; it could not dream of challenging a battle fleet ten times as large. It did seize some merchantmen. A Scottish adventurer flying the American flag, John Paul Jones in the Bon Homme Richard, with 40 guns, raided a 40 ship convoy off the British coast. Suddenly the Serapis, with 44 guns, intervened. In one of the most famous one-on-one battles in British or American naval history Jones captured the Serapis just before his own ship sank; the convoy escaped. The main mission of the Continental navy was to ferry diplomats, supplies, money, and intelligence to and from Europe and the West Indies.

    Failure of State Navies

    Most of the states operated their own little navies, but were scarcely able to confront 74-gun men-of-war. When the British started building a base in Penobscot Bay in Maine, Massachusetts sent 1,000 militia in 40 ships. Unfortunately the commodore commanding the fleet could not agree with the colonel commanding the troops about who was to attack when and where. Delay was fatal, for a more powerful British fleet arrived. The Americans ran their ships aground and fled for home overland. Private ship owners, unable to carry on normal business because of the British blockade, obtained letters of marque from Congress or the states and set out to attack the British merchant fleet anywhere in the world. Some 2,000 privateers captured about 2,000 British ships and 12,000 prisoners, and divided prize money totaling a stunning 18 million pounds (worth perhaps one billion dollars today). However, 10,000 American sailors were in turn captured and imprisoned by the Royal Navy; they rotted away in stinking prison ships dreaming of the fabulous prize money they almost had won. The U.S. army set up a small naval force, manned by fishermen militia. Arnold built a little navy on Lake Champlain which successfully delayed an invasion coming down from Montreal in October 1776. The British army suffered less damage from the Continental Navy warships than it did from the army rowboats which ferried Washington across the Delaware, and which raided British foraging areas in Long Island.

    12. Victory at Yorktown, 1781

    See also Yorktown
    Cornwallis originally planned to invade Virginia only after pacifying the Carolinas. His plan was defeated by the combination of small American regular forces, augmented when needed by swarming bands of militia. "It is not the number of troops Mr. Washington can spare from his army that is to be apprehended," one British general finally realized. "It is the multitude of militia and men in arms ready to turn out at an hour's notice at the shew of a single Regiment of Continental troops." The combination of regulars and militia, supported by a fierce and successful determination to gain political control of the population no matter how much bloodshed, destroyed Cornwallis's plans to rally the Loyalists. He now gave up on the deep south and headed into Virginia with 7,500 men, without guarantees of supplies or reinforcements. His superior, General Henry Clinton in New York, wanted Cornwallis to retreat southward, which doubtless would have been wiser. The British were slow learners; they finally realized that there was no real help from Tories or Indians. As late as June, 1781, Clinton reassured Cornwallis that he faced only 2000 regular Continentals, plus a small body of ill-armed "spiritless" "peasantry". In the event Major General Lafayette commanded 5,000 American and French soldiers who parried the redcoats. Cornwallis finally retreated to the Yorktown peninsula in August. Learning that the main French fleet was moving up from the West Indies, Washington grasped the opportunity. In a brilliant strategic move, he marched 6,000 soldiers from New York to Virginia, while deceiving Clinton as to their destination. Admiral Francois de Grasse brought the French fleet with 28 ships of the line and 3,000 more troops to Virginia on August 30. Washington had long appreciated that "In any and all circumstances a naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend." A British naval squadron, sent to rescue Cornwallis, was challenged by de Grasse at the battle of the Virginia Capes on September 5. The British for once were outnumbered and outgunned, and had no choice but to retreat back to New York for reinforcements. By the time the reinforced fleet returned, it was too late.

    Cornwallis Surrenders
    At Yorktown Washington assembled 5,700 Continentals, 3,200 militia and 7,800 French regulars on loan as part of the alliance. French siege experts used their standard techniques, forcing the redcoats back while new trenches zig-zagged forward. By October 10, 46 heavy guns shelled all parts of the British camp, and another 50 were in action a week later. Cornwallis, huddled in a cave along the riverfront, knew it was hopeless. On October 19 his band played a melancholy tune (perhaps it was "The World Turned Upside Down") as his 8,000 men paraded in surrender. Despite the size of the contending forces, and the importance of the siege, there were only 260 allied and 550 British casualties. The Americans were annoyed when the French officers began fraternizing with British officer-prisoners. The rustic Yankee officers and their upper class French counterparts had always kept at arms' length. No matter, the day of the European aristocracies dominating North America was coming to a close. The battle of Yorktown was the last action needed to guarantee independence.

    British decide on Peace
    London could at great expense have replaced the lost troops, but it had no strategy left. Britain no longer controlled the seas, and no longer could count on Loyalist support south of Canada. Lord Germain and the pro-war ministers fell from power, and the opposition took control in London with a peace program. The Treaty of Paris (1783) provided surprisingly good terms for the new nation. Britain recognized American independence, turned the vast area from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River over to the U.S., and gave the Floridas to Spain. France got nothing but ruinous debt, because the Royal Navy had defeated de Grasse at the Battle of the Saints (near Dominica, West Indies) in 1782. Britain did keep Canada, and it illegally operated forts in the Great Lakes region for another 30 years. It evacuated and resettled 70,000 to 100,000 Loyalists, mostly to Canada. Some returned in later years, as the wartime hatreds quickly subsided. Those who stayed in Canada built a new nation, quite similar to the United States but devoted to upholding the Empire and resisting further intrusions from the damn Yankees. The great majority of Loyalists remained in the United States and became good citizens. The slaves who donned redcoats were freed, and most settled in Canada. The British Empire survived-- temporarily smaller and permanently chastened by its humiliation at the hands of upstart, poorly bred, individualistic, fierce American volunteers.

    Additional Links and On-Line Resources

    1. maps from West Point Atlas recommended
    2. Bibliographies
    3. Re-enactments, historic sites & links
    4. original maps
    5. Documents
    6. Perkins, France in the Revolution
    7. Loyalists
    8. African American Loyalist soldiers
    9. Maryland Loyalists
    10. New Jersey Loyalists
    11. Quakers as Loyalists & Patriots scholarly article
    12. Loyalist history of war
    13. British Legion armed Loyalists in South; original documents
    14. Prisoners
    15. Brunswicker (Hessian) prisoners
    16. naval prisoners from 1913 scholarly book
    17. Spies
    18. Intelligence: by CIA
    19. spy letters from Clements Library
    20. States
    21. Georgia
    22. Maryland Gazette pdf format
    23. Political view from PBS
    24. Washington and his Army
    25. General George Washington ortiginal documents from Library of Congress
    26. The Continental army
    27. American uniforms
    28. Black soldiers
    29. Washington's supply problems scholarly article
    30. Jusserand, Rochambeau and the French in America 1916 essay by a French historian
    31. Battles
    32. Maps
    33. maps from West Point Atlas recommended
    34. Original Maps

    revised 2/12/2002

    Copyright (c) 2002 Richard Jensen. This Guide was prepared with support from the Robert H. Michel Civic Education Grants sponsored by The Dirksen Congressional Center. Scholars are invited to post the complete Guide to campus WWW sites and distribute it to students.

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