Within two months of Lexington and Concord, four separate armies--one from each New England colony (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island)--had enlisted for service through the end of the year. They were patterned after the Provincials, and relieved the minutemen and militia who had begun the siege of Boston. All four armies drew heavily on the militia and minuteman organizations for both officers and trained soldiers.
On June 17 this New England army fought its first engagement, the first major battle of the war. Some 2,200 British regulars made frontal assaults against more than 2,000 militiamen dug in on Bunker and Breed's Hills. When the front-line defenders ran out of ammunition, the British finally took the hills with a bayonet assault.
British general Sir William Howe had won a victory, but lost 42 percent of his men. He realized that in the future he would have to force the Americans to fight battles out in the open where superior British training and discipline would be most effective. Many Americans took pride in the performance of the raw troops, but teamed the wrong lesson from the battle. They mistakenly assumed that courage and marksmanship would always equal training and discipline.
Washington Takes Command
Three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, took control of the conduct of the war. They passed a resolution authorizing "the American Continental Army" and also requested Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to raise troops. The appointment the next day of a Southerner, George Washington, to lead the army added to the national character of the force. Although sectional politics were involved in Washington's selection, he was in fact the best-qualified native American for the job. He began his career in 1752 as a regional adjutant in the Virginia militia and was the only colonial to command a brigade in the French and Indian War.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 put the colonists' rebellion on a new footing. Now there was no going back; as Benjamin Franklin told his fellow signers, "Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately." The Americans prepared for a long war. The continental army was enlarged, and enlistments were for the duration of the war rather than for a single campaign.
The British had taken New York City in the summer of 1776, and in November General Howe launched a sudden drive across New Jersey toward Philadelphia. Washington had no choice but to retreat all the way across the Delaware to Pennsylvania. The fortunes of the Americans were at their lowest ebb.
Washington desperately needed a victory for the morale of the nation and of his troops. He relied upon militia reinforcements from Pennsylvania and Delaware to strike at the Trenton, New Jersey garrison of the Hessians, mercenaries from a minor German principality. On the night of December 26th, in a snowstorm, the American troops crossed the Delaware and routed the Hessians. At Princeton on January 3rd, 1777, Washington shattered two enemy brigades and recovered most of New Jersey for the Patriots.
Victory at Saratoga
British grand strategy for suppressing the rebellion called for the two main British armies, in Canada and New York, to work together to sever New England from the rest of the country. The politicians in London, however, failed to ensure that the two commanders worked together. In the fall of 1777 General Sir John Burgoyne's forces, invading from Canada, were gradually brought to a halt near Saratoga, New York, by the delaying actions of American continentals and militia. Other troops, mostly militia, defeated British flanking columns and forced Burgoyne to abandon his own line of retreat; the continentals twice repulsed the British Regulars in open battle. The combination of militia and Regulars, each carrying out a mission they were suited for, sealed Burgoyne's fate; on October 17 he surrendered nearly 6,000 troops.
While Washington's ragged army was spending the winter of 1777 drilling at Valley Forge, European diplomacy was turning a family quarrel between England and her colonies into a global contest between Britain and her traditional enemies. By 1780, France, Spain, and Holland had declared war on Great Britain. New requirements for British ships and men to protect possessions in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean turned North America into a secondary theater.
The War Moves South
Leaving a body of troops in New York to keep Washington's army pinned down, the British shifted their strategy to the South, where they took the coastal cities of Savannah and Charleston. General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, failed to duplicate his New York success in South Carolina; his army of militia and continentals was defeated by the British at Camden.
By 1780 a violent civil conflict was raging in the South. British strategy called for rallying the Loyalists to declare themselves for the King and to form militia units. But when the British Army marched on to the next county, these Loyalists could no longer rely on the British Army for protection.
Gangs of armed men on both sides galloped over the countryside, buming, looting, and killing. After the battle of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, fought almost entirely by Loyalist and Patriot militia, many Loyalists were massacred while trying to surrender. Meanwhile, Patriot irregulars in Georgia and the Carolinas, under former continentals like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox," harassed the British rear areas.
Tactics to Utilize the Militia
In January 1781 a British cavalry force under the dashing Colonel Banastre Tarleton ("Bloody" Tarleton to the Patriots) suffered a crushing defeat at Cowpens, South Carolina. An illiterate backwoods general, Daniel Morgan, used experienced irregulars and militia to replace the field artillery which the terrible southern roads made impractical.
The night before the battle, Morgan went among the militia. He showed the scars on his back from a flogging while he was in the British Army during the French and Indian War, and explained to them that he wanted two good volleys, and then they would be free to leave. The militiamen's deadly fire forced Tarleton to commit his reserves before reaching Morgan's main line of continentals and Virginia militia. As the continentals and Virginians were destroying Tarleton's force, the militia, rather than riding away, charged out of the woods from the other side. Eight hundred British prisoners were taken.
Like Daniel Morgan, the new American commander in the south, Nathaniel Greene, adopted his tactics to suit local conditions. By concentrating on quality and mobility, and forcing the more cumbersome British Army to chase him, Greene seized the initiat ive with a series of battles. Large militia contingents were called out only on the eve of a battle, and used as they had been at Cowpens. By September of 1781 the British presence in the South had been reduced to toeholds at Charleston and Savannah.
Washington, with help from his new French allies, hoped to end 1781 by retaking New York City. French naval requirements, however, forced a change of plan. Cornwallis had moved into Virginia, and was busy establishing a naval base at Yorktown. French warships entered the Chesapeake Bay and cut the British waterbome supply lines; Virginia militia and a force of continentals blocked overland retreat. Washington and his French counterpart, the comte de Rochambeau, secretly moved most of their regulars down from New York. On October 19, after a European-style siege, Cornwallis surrendered.
Yorktown ended British hopes of overrunning the Southern colonies. Nearly two years later, on April 19, 1783, eight years to the day after the first shots at Lexington, an armistice halted the fighting.