In proportion to contemporary population and wealth, the Revolutionary War destroyed more lives and property than any American conflict except the Civil War; in duration it exceeded all American wars until the one in Vietnam. It was also highly complex. It was a civil war, a war for political independence, and finally a European war conducted on a global scale. Only as a struggle for independence could it be said to have had merely two sides. As a civil war, its active parties were British and German (“Hessian”) regulars, American loyalist militias, and British‐allied Indians, who fought American patriot regulars (the Continental army), American patriot militias, and some American‐allied Indians. The uncommitted, however, comprised approximately two‐fifths of the population, and the outcome of the war ultimately depended on them. As a European conflict and a worldwide war for empire, Britain opposed the United States, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. American social conditions and British strategy shaped the course and determined the outcome of the civil war; but logistical and diplomatic factors governed the war's global phase, and these would strongly influence the nature of American independence.
By 1775, the population of British North America was doubling every twenty‐six years. High birth rates and heavy immigration bespoke easily available land, widely distributed among the farming population. The colonists' dispersion and ethnic diversity helped produce the fragmentation and political instability that became pronounced as populations spread westward after the French and Indian War (known in Britain as the Seven Years' War). The easy availability of land weakened American elites; lacking the ability to live off rents, gentlemen also lacked a secure economic and political base. The southern colonies had stable aristocracies, based on slave ownership; but even the greatest planters lived in fear of slave rebellions. Nor did colonial institutions create stability: governments were small, poor, unbureaucratized, and lacked permanent constabularies; neither a unified market economy nor a universally established church existed. Institutional weakness magnified American parochialism, and most colonists were suspicious of any authority not rooted in their own localities. Americans both distrusted and envied Europe, emulating British styles and institutions while resenting British sophistication. As provincials, colonists saw themselves as morally superior, yet culturally inferior, to the English.
British officers who had served in America during the Seven Years' War believed these conditions made Americans leaderless, lazy, and militarily ineffectual. Remembering the high rates of desertion and mutiny among provincial troops in 1755–60, in 1775 British commanders assumed a lack of toughness in the rebels, who—they thought—would collapse at the first application of force.
A Civil War and a War For Independence: 1775–78
Popular Insurrection and a Failed Police Action: 1775–76. From the tea crisis of 1774 through the evacuation of Boston in March 1776, the British faced massive popular resistance among New Englanders. Insofar as even patriot leaders lagged behind public opinion after the so‐called “Intolerable Acts,” it is not surprising that the British commander in chief, Gen. Thomas Gage, failed to understand that the thousands of men who turned out on 19 April 1775 were not armed mobs, but property holders and their sons, who represented communities convinced that the British intended to enslave them. So popular was the rebellion that within a week of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, 20,000 New England militiamen were besieging the British in Boston, without anyone ordering them to do it.
When news of the fighting in Massachusetts reached the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia, the delegates assumed responsibility for the New England militia—which on 15 June they designated a Continental army—and appointed a commander in chief from Virginia, George Washington. Provincials to the core, the delegates wanted a European‐style regular army to conduct a civilized war. The last thing they—or Washington—wanted was for guerrilla warfare to continue.
Meanwhile, Gage and his officers assumed that they were conducting a police action against agitator‐inspired mobs. Thus, when the Americans fortified a Charlestown hilltop on 17 June, the British decided to attack frontally. As Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne explained, they believed government authority “depends in a great measure upon the idea that trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of untrained rabble; and this idea was a little in suspense since the 19th of April.” The ensuing carnage and the realization that the rabble had not dispersed, but reorganized, compelled the British to reassess their assumptions. Between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the evacuation of Boston (17 March 1776), British commanders lost the illusion that they were involved in a police action, and the British ministry replaced Gage with Gen. William Howe, who understood the war as a confrontation between opposing armies. Howe's plans for 1776 ushered in the second stage of the war, which would last until Burgoyne's defeat at the Battles of Saratoga (September and October 1777).
Conventional War and Failed Negotiations: 1776–77. Howe moved his base of operations in New York to regain the initiative against Washington. If he thrashed the rebel army, he reasoned, most Americans would return to the imperial fold; as popular enthusiasm waned, Congress would become willing to make peace. Howe wanted negotiation more than outright victory because he was not only commander in chief but (together with his brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe) peace commissioner in America. This schizoid role handicapped him both as military leader and as diplomat; yet events of summer and fall 1776 suggested that he would succeed.
After the British evacuated Boston, defeats and disaster filled the rest of 1776. The army Congress had sent to invade Canada in June 1775 collapsed in the summer of 1776. After capturing Montréal, the Continentals failed to take Québec, and were forced to raise their siege when British reinforcements arrived by ship in May. By July, the Americans had retreated to Lake Champlain and—desperately hoping to slow the advance of Gen. Guy Carleton's powerful army on New York—built a small fleet of gunboats. At the Battle of Valcour Island (10 October 1776), Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold succeeded in stalling Carleton's invasion, but had to withdraw to Fort Ticonderoga.
Meanwhile, the fervor of 1775 faded as General Washington tried to transform the Continentals into a regular army capable of holding New York against Howe. He had less than 20,000 troops on Long Island, Manhattan, and the lower Hudson on 25 June 1776 when Howe landed at Staten Island. Howe tried first to negotiate, but found that Congress's representatives, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, would settle for nothing less than independence. Howe then used his 32,000 troops, together with his brother's fleet and 10,000 sailors, to drive Washington off Long Island (27–30 August). Following him to Manhattan in mid‐September, Howe attacked again in October, compelling Washington to withdraw to White Plains. In November, Howe captured the critical posts of Fort Washington, New York, and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Washington retreated across New Jersey with a disintegrating army. He crossed the Delaware on 7 December with perhaps 5,000 troops fit for duty, and most of their enlistments would expire on 31 December.
Howe's strategy seemed to have worked brilliantly. The Continental army was collapsing; colonists in New York and New Jersey were eagerly swearing allegiance to the king, provisioning his forces, and enlisting in loyalist units. Howe saw popular support for the Revolution evaporating and assumed that Congress would soon negotiate. Yet two features of his campaign were about to produce the opposite effect. First, Howe's troops—particularly the Hessians and the loyalist irregulars—had handled civilian populations roughly. Every incident of rape and theft helped to crystallize popular opposition. Second, on 13 December, Howe sent his men into winter quarters, scattering them across central New Jersey in small cantonments—and thus exposing them to attack.
Venturing everything, Washington used what was left of his army to attack enemy units at Trenton, in late December 1776, and Princeton, in January 1777, and thus began to restore Continental morale. Howe, realizing the mistake of dispersing his units, reconcentrated them in the Lower Raritan Valley, allowing patriot militia to regain control of the province and nullify his recent successes. Howe did not yet see how counterproductive his approach had been, however, and planned to pursue Washington through Pennsylvania in 1777. The ministry, meanwhile, authorized Burgoyne to renew the invasion from Canada. Howe and Burgoyne assumed that loyalist support would emerge wherever the redcoats appeared. They were mistaken.
Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga on 5 July, then pursued the fleeing Continentals through the woods south of Lake Champlain rather than proceeding to the Upper Hudson Valley via Lake George. Reaching the Hudson, he found that his Indian and Hessian allies had turned New Yorkers against him. When the supplies and loyalist supporters he expected never materialized, he found himself trapped. The northern Continental army under Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, reinforced by militiamen from New England and New York, defeated Burgoyne at the two Battles of Saratoga (17 September and 5 October 1777). On 17 October, he signed a Convention that allowed him to return to England, but left his army prisoner. Saratoga cost the British over 6,000 casualties and captives. The prisoners of war, called the Convention army, were shifted from colony to colony for the rest of the war.
Meanwhile, Howe defeated Washington in Pennsylvania at the Battle of the Brandywine (11 September 1777), but again failed to destroy his army. He seized Philadelphia at the end of September. Washington counterattacked unsuccessfully at Germantown (4 October), then lost the Delaware River forts that commanded Philadelphia's water approaches (15–21 November). Unlike the previous year, defeat did not threaten to dissolve the army, which went into winter quarters at Valley Forge on 11 December. Thanks to Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who improved the army's training during the winter, and to Nathanael Greene, who as quartermaster general reformed the supply system, the Continentals emerged from Valley Forge tougher and better organized than ever.
Thus, Howe's conventional war strategy failed again. Congress refused to negotiate; redcoat, loyalist, and Hessian abuse of civilians reanimated popular resistance; and patriot militiamen controlled whatever territory the British could not occupy.
Howe failed because he misinterpreted civilian attitudes. What he took for incipient loyalism was no more than the reluctance of many Americans—in the Middle Colonies probably a majority—to take sides. He never understood how the very arrival of the British army (and especially its loyalist, Hessian, and Indian auxiliaries) drove neutrals into alliance with the patriots. By contrast, Washington used enormous restraint in dealing with civilians, refusing to confiscate food and clothing even when his men at Valley Forge were starving. Above all, he deferred to Congress's wishes in order to demonstrate the army's subordination to civil authority.
State governments employed their militia forces with similar restraint. On the whole, prosecutors and militia units tolerated neutral behavior as a manifestation of localism, not loyalism. Knowing that Americans distrusted centralized power, they required only minimal support: anyone who paid his taxes, kept his mouth shut, and turned up for militia duty would be left alone. The practice of allowing men drafted for military duty to hire substitutes, and the parsimonious, quasi‐legal use of force in making examples of notorious Tories helped win the acquiescence, if not the hearts and minds, of neutrals. Finally, governments retained the goodwill of property holders by hesitating to confiscate supplies for the army. This restraint had two effects: the Continental army remained chronically undermanned and undersupplied; and neutrals were not driven to loyalism.
The French Alliance and a World War: 1778–83
Turning Point: 1777–78. Howe's indecisive campaign and Burgoyne's spectacular defeat convinced the French, who heretofore had offered only covert aid, to enter into open alliance with the United States. Congress had first sent delegates to Paris in 1776; Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues had raised money and publicized America's cause, but France's foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, had remained cautious. The events of 1777, however, changed his mind. On 17 December 1777, France recognized the United States diplomatically, and soon thereafter it presented drafts of two treaties to the American commissioners. The first of these, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, offered the United States preferential trading privileges in France. The second, the Treaty of Alliance, was to take effect at the beginning of hostilities between France and Britain; it promised that France would not press any further claims to Canada, would refrain from negotiating peace with Britain on any grounds other than American independence, and guaranteed to the United States any territories French troops might conquer in North America during the war. Signed on 6 February 1778, both treaties were ratified in Congress on 4 May 1778.
Hoping to nullify the alliance, the British ministry dispatched the earl of Carlisle to negotiate with Congress. The Carlisle Commission could promise anything short of independence, but Congress would settle for no less. While Carlisle made overtures until November 1778 and military activity in North America came to a standstill, naval warfare broke out between France and Britain. War in Europe transformed a colonial fight for independence into a larger—ultimately worldwide—struggle that the British could not win.
From June 1778 onward, the British had to defend the home islands against invasion, protect Gibraltar, and shield the valuable, vulnerable West Indian sugar islands (especially Jamaica) from attack. This meant that Howe's successor, Gen. Henry Clinton, would have fewer men and bigger logistical problems than ever, and that he could no longer assume the Royal Navy's superiority in American waters. His response, a new strategy, reflected these new circumstances, as well as his estimate of American social conditions.
Conquest, Pacification, and Civil War in the South: 1778–81. Clinton knew that in Georgia and South Carolina, low country rice planters lived in fear that their slaves (two‐thirds of the population) would rebel, and that long‐standing animosities divided lowland whites from the poorer, more numerous backcountry farmers. This convinced him that his best hope of victory lay in the Lower South; he also understood that to retain control of even this region, he would have to win the support, or at least the compliance, of the uncommitted population. Clinton therefore decided to move the war to the South, using loyalist units not as auxiliaries in conventional operations, but as pacification forces. Once the regulars cleared the countryside of rebels, loyalist units would organize local self‐defense forces to keep the patriot militia at bay. When law and order had been established, they would hand control over to civilians, who would reinstitute civil government under crown auspices.
Pacification began promisingly with the invasion of Georgia in the winter of 1778–79. Savannah fell to a 3,500‐man British force under Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell on 29 December 1778; hundreds of Georgians volunteered as loyalist irregulars, and quickly garrisoned what the regulars conquered. Redcoats took Augusta on 29 January 1779, then stood off two Continental attempts to retake the town. American forces withdrew to Charleston. By the end of July 1779, royal government had been reinstituted under a civilian governor. A Franco‐American force under Admiral d’Estaing and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln besieged Savannah in October 1779, but d’Estaing soon withdrew to the West Indies and Lincoln returned to Charleston. Georgia became Clinton's base for carrying the war to South Carolina.
The invasion began in the spring of 1780 with a spectacular success: Clinton came from New York with over 8,000 men to direct the campaign, trapping Lincoln in Charleston, which fell on 12 May. The surrender of Lincoln's 2,600‐man garrison obliterated the Continental presence in the Lower South. Clinton established outposts throughout the countryside and recruited loyalists to hold them, making every effort to avoid repeating past mistakes. After forbidding looting and appointing an inspector general to keep the loyalists in line, he left Charleston in early summer, taking a third of his troops back to New York.
Clinton did not know it, but his pacification program would engulf the Lower South in a sanguinary civil war. He had already alienated most of the planter gentry by encouraging slaves to run away to the British lines and offering them refuge; he even permitted a black unit, the Carolina Corps, to be formed of ex‐slaves, alarming Southern whites fully as much as Burgoyne had alarmed New Yorkers by employing Indians as auxiliaries. Thus even before he left for New York, Clinton had begun to alienate would‐be neutrals, and had given patriot planters a reason not to lay down their arms and sit out the remainder of the war. The bands of patriot partisans who retreated to the swamps and mountains could no more be rooted out than the loyalists could be restrained from settling old scores. Patriot irregulars like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion made terrorist attacks on loyalists and regular detachments, and the Tory legions of Banastre Tarleton and Patrick Ferguson answered terror with terror. Patriot militiamen, for example, massacred many of Ferguson's loyalists after the Battle of King's Mountain (7 October 1780), retaliating for Tarleton's earlier massacre of patriots at the Battle of Waxhaws (29 May); these were, however, only the best known atrocities in a savage guerrilla war.
Loyalist attacks swelled patriot ranks with former neutrals throughout the backcountry during the summer and fall of 1780. Meanwhile in the low country, Clinton's policy of encouraging slaves to run away brought tens of thousands of them to British camps in search of freedom. Planters lost sympathy with the British as their labor forces vanished. By year's end, pacification was doomed in low country and backcountry alike. Clinton was perhaps the last to know. Back in New York he expected an attack by the French fleet and an expeditionary force under the comte de Rochambeau, France's new commander in chief in America.
Clinton had left behind about 8,000 men under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, whose inability to control a chaotic region intensified his dislike of Clinton and pacification. He preferred action, and with a field army of about 4,000 men responded decisively when a Continental force under Horatio Gates attempted to invade South Carolina. After routing Gates at the Battle of Camden (16 August 1780), Cornwallis concentrated on defeating the next Continental general to appear, Nathanael Greene.
Greene assumed command of a shattered Continental force at Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 December 1780, and immediately took the offensive. He daringly divided his 2,000 Continentals and militiamen into two bodies, taking about 1,500 men under his own command and assigning the rest to Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan. Morgan struck southwest into the backcountry and defeated Tarleton's loyalist legion at the Battle of Cowpens, 17 January 1781; then he retreated to North Carolina and rejoined Greene at the Catawba River. Cornwallis gave chase; Greene withdrew northeastward toward the Dan River, near the Virginia border. Cornwallis lacked the boats to cross the Dan and halted on 17 February 1781, turning toward Hillsborough to replenish his provisions. Greene crossed back into North Carolina and sent detachments to harass his enemy. On 25 February 1781, the cavalry legion of Lt. Col. Henry Lee (“Light‐Horse Harry”) annihilated a loyalist unit at the Haw River, leading Cornwallis's loyalists to abandon him. When Greene finally joined forces on 15 March at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis had just 1,600 redcoats to attack 4,450 Continentals and militia.
Cornwallis's superbly disciplined regulars carried the day at Guilford, but a third were killed or wounded while Greene sustained losses of perhaps 10 percent. Cornwallis headed for Wilmington, where he could be resupplied by sea. After a brief rest, he marched north to Virginia. There he hoped to trap the Continentals of the marquis de Lafayette, who had been fencing with a 3,000‐man British force under the turncoat American general, Benedict Arnold. (Arnold had accepted a British command and a large payment in return for his promise to hand over the fortress of West Point, New York, in 1780. The plot failed, but Arnold escaped to fight for the British.) Arnold had picked up substantial loyalist support, and Cornwallis convinced himself that taking Virginia would somehow secure the Carolinas and Georgia. Greene, he assumed, would move to support Lafayette.
But Greene returned to South Carolina and attacked the scattered British garrisons there. Thus, while Cornwallis pursued Lafayette, British commanders in South Carolina and Georgia found themselves forced to withdraw to the coastal enclaves of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. Behind them, patriot militia units reasserted control over the countryside.
Clinton sent troops from New York, giving Cornwallis over 7,000 men to bring Lafayette's 1,200 Continentals (and variable numbers of militiamen) to bay. When Lafayette refused to be trapped, Cornwallis used cavalry units and loyalist auxiliaries to attack rebel property. The more successful these raids were—and some, like Tarleton's Charlottesville raid in June and his 400‐mile swing through the Southside in July, were spectacular—the more Lafayette's support grew. Reinforced by Continentals from Pennsylvania, Lafayette shadowed Cornwallis down the York peninsula in August, as he moved to establish a base with access to the sea: Yorktown.
After three years of bungled or thwarted operations, the French Navy finally exerted a decisive effect on land operations. From the beginning of the alliance, French admirals had preferred to cruise the Caribbean whenever possible; they entered North American waters only when the hurricane season made West Indian operations hazardous. Rochambeau's expeditionary force, in America since July 1780, had so far sat in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington and Rochambeau had planned to attack New York, but the arrival of Admiral de Grasse's fleet and the news that Cornwallis had moved to Yorktown changed everything. When de Grasse announced that he would operate in the Chesapeake until 15 October, Washington decided to trap Cornwallis. He marched south with half his army and most of the French expeditionary force on 20 August. On 14 September, he joined forces with Lafayette on the York Peninsula.
De Grasse had already debarked troops and sailed back to the bay's entrance. There, on 5 September, he met the British fleet of Adm. Thomas Graves. In the ensuing battle off the Chesapeake Capes, de Grasse repelled Grave's fleet, inflicting damage that forced it back to New York. This decided the outcome of the campaign, and—in a sense—the war. Within days, Admiral de Barras's squadron arrived from Newport with supplies and siege artillery. Cornwallis was doomed.
The Franco‐American army marched to Yorktown on 28 September and prepared to lay siege. Formal operations opened on 6 October and lasted until Cornwallis had endured a week of bombardment. When he surrendered on 20 October, the allies took charge of a quarter of the British army in America—8,000 troops—and a mountain of equipment.
The Battle of Yorktown did not deal a death blow to British military strength, but it made the ministry's position in Parliament untenable. The prime minister, Lord North, had long hoped to resign; he left office early in 1782. Clinton was recalled and replaced by Gen. Guy Carleton. Pressed by demands in other theaters, Whitehall suspended military activity in America.
Endgame: 1782–83. Carleton reached New York in May 1782 and ended offensive operations until the political settlement could be negotiated in Europe. The British had already abandoned Wilmington (January 1782); they would soon evacuate Savannah (July) and Charleston (December). Washington observed Carleton from his Hudson River fortifications, but took no further action.
Meanwhile, the war went from bad to worse for Britain. Following Yorktown, de Grasse had sailed up the Caribbean, where he seized Nevis, St. Christopher, and Montserrat. In April 1782, he threatened the grandest prize of all, Jamaica; and although Adm. George Romney thwarted that attempt in a battle off the Isles des Saintes near Guadeloupe, it remained possible that a combined Franco‐Spanish force would mount a new invasion once the hurricane season had passed. Spain, indeed, had become a critical actor in the war. Following the declaration of war in June 1779, Spanish forces had attacked British posts in West Florida, taking Natchez (5 October 1779), Mobile (14 March 1780), and Pensacola (8 May 1781). Worse, from Britain's perspective, was Spain's conquest of Minorca (5 February 1782) and its repeated threats to Gibraltar. After blockading the fortress in 1779–80 and 1781–82, Spanish naval and land forces besieged it in 1782, trying to storm it in September. The attack failed, but Spain could still seal the straits and starve out the garrison. Finally, Dutch trade had been so valuable to America, Spain, and France that the British had declared war against Holland in December 1780. Dutch belligerency made it virtually impossible for the Royal Navy to operate in the North Sea and raised the possibility that Holland's East Indies fleet would aid the French against British forces in India, where by 1782 the situation looked grave.
Peace commissioners met in Paris as early as April 1782, but only in October did Britain's representatives agree to recognize American independence. Thereafter, the U.S. commissioners—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay—quickly agreed on articles with the British. The French, nearly bankrupt, were also willing to make peace, having revenged the humiliation of 1763 by depriving Britain of thirteen valuable colonies. Spain, however, refused to parley while it might still take Gibraltar, and it was not until 20 January 1783 that preliminary articles were signed. On 4 February, Britain announced the cessation of hostilities. Congress ratified the treaty on 15 April; the formal articles were concluded at the Peace of Paris on 3 September.
The peace treaty strongly favored the United States. Britain recognized American independence, agreed to boundaries between the Great Lakes and the 31st parallel as far west as the Mississippi River, recognized American fishing rights off Newfoundland, and promised to evacuate its posts on American territory “with all convenient speed.” The United States in turn agreed to pay all debts due to British creditors and compensate loyalists for their confiscated property. The states proved slow to compensate the loyalists, and the British retained posts in the Northwest until 1796; but in other respects the peace restored amity with remarkable speed, given the length and ferocity of the war.
It was not British benevolence but desperation that accounted for the character of the Peace of Paris. Reeling militarily and isolated diplomatically, Britain faced severe financial peril and a public sick of war. In the end, Britain made peace on generous terms because it needed to trade with its former colonies, just as the United States—bankrupt and facing economic collapse—needed to reestablish the commercial connections war had severed.
Wherever the British army went between 1775 and 1781, it invariably alienated the people whose support it needed most, the neutrals. When the fighting started in 1775, only New England had a patriot majority; elsewhere, local minorities of armed patriots intimidated smaller loyalist minorities, and most colonists avoided committing themselves. No British commander in chief ever found a way to turn the neutrals into active supporters—or keep his troops from providing endless object lessons in British “tyranny.”
Thus, over a long and bitter war, the neutrals dwindled in number everywhere. No matter how many battles the British army won, it could not maintain control—and protect its supporters—outside of ports like New York, Charleston, and Savannah. Whenever the army left an area, its collaborators had to choose between fleeing as refugees and remaining to face the patriot militias that reasserted control as soon as the last redcoat had departed. Clinton's recognition of this pattern led both to his southern pacification plan and to the opening of the war's most destructive phase, which nullified the promise of his strategy. Even before Yorktown, Americans were war‐weary; but even the most apathetic of them could see that the British government would never sustain its presence in America, and sooner or later the patriots would return. Thus the war educated Americans in the practical politics of self‐interest and survival. Ultimately, the neutrals, and many loyalists, chose patriot rule over exile.
This is not to minimize the role of republican ideology in influencing the shape of Revolutionary events, but only to contextualize it. Far from being an autonomous intellectual construct, revolutionary republicanism was a dynamic ideological response to changing conditions, and was itself shaped by the war—particularly insofar as the coercion of populations by armed force gave immediate meaning to the concept of tyranny and encouraged patriot leaders to take stringent steps toward subordinating military to civil authority in the postwar era.
Nor does the recognition of the war as decisively shaped by social factors diminish the importance of French intervention. Even in the indecisive first years of the alliance, the French Navy denied the Royal Navy supremacy on the Atlantic, making the American war difficult to sustain; French matériel and money enabled the Continental army to survive overwhelming difficulties. By denying Cornwallis his escape route, the French Fleet allowed a Franco‐American army to besiege Yorktown; French cannon, fired from emplacements laid out by French engineers, persuaded Cornwallis to surrender. The imminent threat of further losses to French, Spanish, and Dutch forces gave British opposition politicians sufficient leverage to end the war. French participation thus determined when and how the war ended; but it did not make the difference between winning and losing for the British. American society itself had rendered the Revolutionary War a fight that Britain could not win.
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