Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the people of the American colonies began a new and dangerous venture, one that was to lead, first to war, and then to separation from England.
The reasons were varied. England treated the colonists as an inferior class of people, her intention being to make and keep the colonies dependent, its laws designed to favor the English manufacturer and merchant at the expense of the colonist. The Navigation Acts compelled the American farmer to send his products across the ocean to England, and to purchase goods in British markets, as American manufactures were prohibited. Even William Pitt, thought to be a friend of America, said that the colonies hadn't the right to manufacture even a nail for a horseshoe, except by permission of Parliament. These were indirect causes of the Revolutionary War.
The direct cause was an attempt by England to tax the colonies in order to raise money to recoup the costs of its recent war with France. As the colonies were not represented in Parliament, they resisted this measure, declaring that taxation without representation is tyranny. Obstinate, the British government first attempted to enforce the odious laws against trade.
As a result, smuggling became commonplace. The British officers were granted Writs of Assistance, or warrants authorizing them to search for smuggled goods. Under this pretext, custom officials could enter any man's store or home at his pleasure. Believing that "every man's house is his castle," the colonists resisted such searches as a violation of their rights.
The Stamp Act of 1765 ordered that stamps, purchased from the British government, be placed on all legal documents, newspapers, and even pamphlets. This further aroused the colonists against their motherland. In defiance, the houses of British officials were mobbed, prominent loyalists were hung in effigy, stamps were seized, and stamp agents were encouraged to resign. The colonists agreed not to use any article of British manufacture.
Associations, such as the Sons of Liberty, were formed in order to resist the law. Delegates from nine of the colonies met in New York, framing a Declaration of Rights and a petition to the king and to Parliament.
November 1st, the day that the Stamp Act was to go into effect, was observed as a day of mourning. Bells were tolled, flags were raised at half-mast, and businesses were closed. Samuel Adams, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and James Otis aroused colonists over all the land with stirring and patriotic speeches.
Alarmed by such demonstrations, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but nevertheless declared that it had the right to tax the colonies. Before long, new duties were placed on tea, glass, and paper, and a Board of Trade was established in Boston, which was to act independently from the colonial assemblies and be answerable only to Parliament.
Correctly anticipating bitter opposition to this order, British troops were sent to enforce these laws. The Mutiny Act, as it was called, required that the colonies provide these troops with quarters and all necessary supplies. The Americans saw this as an attempt to enslave them. To be taxed was bad enough, but to be forced to shelter and feed their oppressors was unbearable.
Having refused to comply, the New York assembly was forbidden to pass any legislative acts. When the Massachusetts assembly sent a circular to the other colonies urging unity in support of a demand for redress of grievances, Parliament ordered the assembly to rescind its action. Almost unanimously, it refused. Meanwhile, the assemblies of nearly all of the colonies had declared that Parliament hadn't the right to tax them without their consent, prompting a warning that they not imitate the conduct of Massachusetts.
The hot bed of early rebellion, the British General Gage was directed to station two regiments of troops in Boston. They were refused quarters by the people of Boston, some finally sleeping in Feneuil Hall, the remainder encamped on the Common. Cannons were set up, sentries posted, and citizens who came near were challenged.
Frequent quarrels erupted between the British troops and the American citizens of Boston. Finally, on March 5, 1770, a crowd of men and boys heckled British soldiers who were on the streets of Boston, insulting them and throwing snowballs and ice. A fight began, resulting in the death of five Bostonians and the wounding of several others. The alarm was spread. People from communities all around Boston rushed to help their neighbors, and it was with great difficulty that order was restored.
Alarmed by persistent disobedience and outright resistance, Parliament rescinded the taxes, except for the tax on tea, which was left to maintain the principle that it reserved the right to tax the colonies. An arrangement was made whereby tea was furnished at so cheap an price that even with the tax it was cheaper in America than in England.
The British thought that surely this would not only restore order but reserve its rights over the colonies. Not so. This subterfuge exasperated the American patriots, as they were fighting for an important principle, not against a paltry tax.
The colonists understood the importance of this principle, responding by refusing to purchase tea. At Charleston, the tea was stored in damp cellars, where it was soon ruined. The British ships carrying tea to New York and Philadelphia were turned away. Determined to assert its control over the colonies, England refused to permit the ships carrying tea to Boston to return.
The colonists decided that the tea would never be unloaded at Boston. To that end, a party of men, disguised as Indians, boarded the vessels, dumping 342 chests of tea into the water.
England retaliated by appointing General Gage governor over Massachusetts, and closing the port of Boston, shutting it off from all trade. When the Virginia assembly protested this measure, it was dissolved by the governor.
The lines were drawn. Those who opposed the British government were termed Whigs, while those who supported it were known as Tories. The words of Patrick Henry became a mantra - "Give me liberty or give me death." The colonies formed militia, known as minute men, and the idea of a continental union became widely popular.
In response to an unfounded rumor that British ships were firing on the city, 30,000 minute men were on their way to Boston within two days. All that was needed was a spark to ignite the hatred of the British into the flames of war.
On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia, with every colony except Georgia represented. At this time, it was not certain that independence was the proper course of action, but the colonies resolved that obedience to the recent acts of Parliament was not in their best interests, and resolved to support and assist Massachusetts in its resistance. As a result, a protest was issued against standing armies being kept in the colonies without the consent of the people, and an agreement was made to do no business with Great Britain.
At about midnight on April 18, 1775, having learned that people were gathering stores of weapons and powder at Concord, Gage sent about 800 troops, under the command of Colonel Smith and Major Pitcairn, to destroy them. By the time the British had reached Lexington, a company of minute men had assembled on the village green. A skirmish ensued, in which eight Americans - the first military martyrs of the Revolution - were killed. Thus began a long and bitter struggle, the American War for Independence.
The British pushed on, destroying what remained of the arsenal, most of the weapons having been hidden in the woods. Alarmed by a gathering American militia, they hastily retreated; as it was, not in time. The entire region flew to arms. Every man or boy old enough to use a rifle rushed to avenge the deaths of his countrymen. According to reports from surviving members of the British regiment, on their way back to Boston they were fired upon from all sides, from behind trees, fences, buildings, and rocks. By some accounts, about 300 British died during their retreat to Boston. If not for reinforcements, none would have survived the retreat.
At the news that American blood had been spilled in battle, patriots came pouring in from throughout the land. Soon, more than 20,000 Americans were at work building entrenchments to shut the British up in the city. Congresses loyal to America were formed in all the colonies, effectively breaking the power of the royal governors from Massachusetts to Georgia.
On May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen led a small company of volunteers known as the Green Mountain Boys against the British fortress at Ticonderoga. The fort was surrendered to the Americans without resistance, yielding large stores of cannon and ammunition. Colonel Benedict Arnold was present, but his role in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga is in dispute.
On that same day, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, voting to raise 20,000 men and to appoint General George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. A petition to King George III was prepared, which he refused to receive.
On June 1, 1775, Peter Oliver, a companion of the British General Gage, writes to his brother in London:
Our situation here, without any exaggeration, is beyond description almost; it is such as eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor hath it ever entered into the heart of man to conceive Boston ever to arrive at.
We are besieged this moment with 10 or 15000 men, from Roxbury to Cambridge; their rebell sentrys within call of the troops sentrys on the Neck. We are every hour expecting an attack by land or water. All marketing from the country stopt ever since the battle. Fire and slaughter hourly threatened, and not out of danger from some of the inhabitants within, of setting the town of [on] fire. ...
You seem in England to be entirely ignorant of the temper of our people. They are as much determined from Florida to Halifax to oppose you at home, do what you will, as I hear the Ministry are determined to pursue their plan.
General Gage himself, writing to Lord North, says, on June 12, 1775:
The situation these wretches have taken in forming the blockade of this town is judicious and strong, being well intrenched where the situation requires it and with cannon. Their numbers are great, exclusive of every inhabitant armed coming in to join that part of their army that may be attacked; upon the alarm being given, they come from far and near, and the longer the action lasts, the greater their numbers grow.
On June 16, 1775, learning that the British intended to fortify Bunker's Hill, the patriots marched to Charlestown Neck. Deciding that Breed's Hill was a more commanding site than Bunker Hill, they set to work fortifying it, working throughout the night. At daylight on the 17th, the British, unaware of the presence of the Americans, ascended the hill, coming to within point blank shooting range before the patriots began firing at them from the protection of earthen works which they had constructed. Entire platoons of British fell in a blaze of fire from the Americans. The survivors ran for cover under the smoke of Charleston, which had been set aflame on orders of Gage, and again they were fired upon by the patriots.
Reinforced, the British advanced against the Americans who, out of ammunition, resisted by using their muskets as clubs, but were finally forced to retreat. The effect upon the Americans was that of a victory. Their untrained militias, consisting mostly of farmers and businessmen, had done well against British veterans. They were encouraged, and the determination to fight for liberty was intensified.
When Washington first took command, the newly formed Continental Army numbered only about 14,000 men, few of whom had military training or prior experience in battle. Some were unfit for service due to age or health, while others had left their farms on impulse and were eager to return. All were poorly clothed, and there were fewer than nine cartidges for each soldier. Washington expended great effort to meet the needs of his army, to prepare them for battle, even while keeping Gage and his troops penned up in Boston.
Having been told of a British plan to reinforce its troops from Canada, General Montgomery led an army by way of Lake Champlain, capturing St. John's and Montreal, then moving on to Quebec. He was joined outside of Quebec by Colonel Arnold who, with a small contingent, had ascended the Kennebec, then struck out across the wilderness through Maine.
Together, the American forces numbered fewer than a thousand men. After besieging Quebec for three weeks during the Christmas season, they led their forces on an assault of the city in the midst of a terrible snowstorm. Advancing through ice and heavy snow, Montgomery was killed at the edge of the city, after which the troops under his command fled. Approaching from the other side of the city, Arnold was himself wounded. His successor pressed on the attack but, against tremendous odds, was forced to surrender. Still, the remant of the American army blockaded the city until spring, escaping only after British reinforcements arrived.
In March of 1776, Washington sent a force by night to fortify Dorchester Downs, in Boston. As at Bunker Hill, the British were surprised to find entrenchments overlooking the city. A storm made an immediate attack possible, but General Howe, who was then in command of the British troops in Boston, decided to abandon Boston and escape, setting sail for Halifax with his army.
The next day, Washington entered the city amid great rejoicing. For eleven months, the Bostonians had endured the insolence of their enemy, their houses pillaged, shops raided, and churches profaned.
Early in the summer, an English fleet opened fire on Fort Moultrie, near Charleston. According to accounts, so fearful was the response every man except British Admiral Peter Parker was swept from the deck of his vessel. General Clinton, who commanded the British troops on land, attempted an attack on the fort from the rear, but was hampered by water and unsuccessful against the fire of American riflemen, under the command of Colonel William Moultrie of South Carolina. What was left of the British fleet sailed for New York.
In the British attack on Fort Moultrie, ten American soldiers were killed, and twenty-two wounded.
The British suffered the following losses:
- The Bristol, with 50 guns. Commander Parker, the captain, had his arm shot off. 44 men were killed, and 30 wounded.
- The Experiment, with 50 guns. The captain lost an arm. 57 men were killed, and 30 wounded.
- The Active, with 18 guns. A lieutenant was killed, and another man wounded.
- The Sole-Bay, with 28 guns. 2 men were killed, and 4 wounded.
- The Syren, with 28 guns, ran ashore without reaching the fort.
- The Acteon, with 28 guns, also ran ashore. One lieutenant was killed. The ship was burned to keep it from falling into American hands.
- The Sphinx, with 28, lost its bowsprit, and never reached the battle.
- The Friendship, with 26 guns, was taken by the American forces.
- The Thunder Bomb, with mortars onboard, fired its shells within the fort but the Americans had prepared a large hole in the center which absorbed the blasts.
- The Prince of Piedmont, a victualing ship, was sunk.
During the summer 1776 session of Congress, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, moved that "The United Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States," a motion that was seconded by John Adams, of Massachusetts. The motion was passed on July 2, and the report of the committee appointed to draw up the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4th, 1776.