On the outbreak of the war the American colonies were, from North to South; Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut (making up New England), New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The principal cities were Boston in Massachusetts, New York, Philadelphia, the colonial capital of Pennsylvania, and Charleston, the capital of South Carolina.
To the North of the colonies lay the British province of Canada, with its mainly French speaking population, and to the West the hinterland of the American landmass.
The American colonies differed widely. The New England colonies had been established and settled largely by English Presbyterians and comprised small close knit farming communities, with fishing and trading centres along the coast. The populations were inward looking and intolerant of outsiders.
Boston was a busy port, reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the English speaking world.
New York contained a polyglot population of Dutch, Swedes and English. Upstate New York contained large estates. The Hudson River, a main communications artery, was the centre of considerable trading activity. The large state area contained a considerable Indian presence from the Iroquois Six Nations confederation, particularly the Mohawks.
Pennsylvania, established by the Quaker Penn family, had been hamstrung in the early part of the 18th Century by the stranglehold the Quakers maintained on government. The population, particularly in the West of the colony, was largely German and Scotch-Irish with little commitment to the British Crown. The colony was a prosperous community of small farmers. In the East lay Philadelphia, the largest city in the American colonies and the first capital of the United States.
Map of the American Colonies at the outbreak of war in 1775
Virginia and the southern colonies were different in character. Tobacco growing along the ‘Tideway’ coastline was the backbone of the Virginian economy. Ships from England collected the tobacco and delivered in exchange goods that enabled the most successful planters to maintain the lavish lifestyle of English country gentlemen. More than fifty per cent of the colony’s population comprised African slaves. In the remote western regions of the colony colonists cut farmsteads from the forests and maintained a precarious existence in the face of resistance from the native American tribes.
The Carolinas and Georgia, the most recently established colonies, were similar in character and outlook to Virginia.
The Minutemen of 1776
The relationship between the American colonies and the British Crown was complex and turbulent. In each colony the Royal Governor had historically been at odds with the Assembly of elected leading colonials, usually over taxation. Pennsylvania, where the Penn family exempted themselves from financial contribution to the running of the colony, is a good illustration of the almost unworkable system that had grown up.
The main element that kept the colonies and the British Crown in uneasy alliance was the threat from France with its powerful base along the St Lawrence seaway in Canada and along the western borders of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The long and agonising French and Indian War between 1755 and 1762 saw the French forced out of Canada, with Britain assuming government of the French population, and the American colonies released from the threat of French invasion and dominance.
That war, fought in Europe, India and the West Indies, left Britain with considerable debt. The British government considered the American colonies should contribute to the reduction of that debt and many of the measures that brought about the Revolutionary War were to that end.
Following the war a substantial British garrison remained in America. 18th Century armies were not easy guests, particularly with their practices of enforced and fraudulent recruitment. The redcoats became as unpopular in the towns and villages of New England as they were in ‘Old’ England. The relationship between the royal troops and their provincial colleagues in the war against the French had been far from easy. The royal officers tended to be contemptuous of the professionalism of the provincials and the colonies resented the loss of life in battles like Ticonderoga brought about by the incompetence of Royal officers. A dispute that simmered throughout the French and Indian War arose from the ranking of provincial officers beneath royal officers of the same grade. George Washington had found this particularly galling.
The City of Philadelphia
General Braddock’s disastrous defeat in July 1755 in Western Pennsylvania struck a major blow to the prestige of the British Crown. The withdrawal of Colonel Dunbar with the survivors of Braddock’s regular troops to Philadelphia, leaving Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and even Western New York to be ravaged by Indian raiding parties, encouraged by the French, led many in those colonies to question the worth of the link with Britain and to look to their own colonial governments to fill the vacuum left by the Royal Forces.
Braddock’s campaign provides a looming portent for the future of the colonies. Many of the participants went on to take major parts in the Revolutionary War: George Washington, Gage, Gates, Mercer, Lee and several others.
Signing the oath of loyalty
In 1775 Major General Gage (a veteran of Braddock’s campaign) was the Commander-in-Chief in Boston. He had 11 battalions of foot in Boston, 1 in New York and 6 others spread through North America; 7, 000 men in all.
Gage knew that war was coming. Magistrates loyal to the British Crown were displaced in many parts of New England. In February 1775, a Provincial Congress met in Cambridge and took over the government of Massachusetts, other than Boston itself. The colonial militia was arming and drilling. Gage called for substantial re-enforcements from Britain.
The British army of the time was not an efficient institution. Since the French and Indian War, Parliament had reduced the number of regiments. Recruiting was always a problem, particularly for the regiments in America. There was no formal military education for officers and efficiency varied widely between regiments. In peace time there was little training and in a garrison like Boston, where the surrounding countryside was hostile, the opportunities for field days, even if the officers had been inclined to conduct them, were limited.
The hanging of the British officer, Major Andre,
for negotiating the treachery of Benedict Arnold
If the British infantry had been moderately competent and led with a modicum of professionalism, the attack on the position at Breed’s Hill, in the battle of Bunker Hill, would have been successful within minutes. The illustration of the battle showing superbly turned out redcoats in a serried rank is highly misleading. The failure of the British artillery to take the correct calibre of ammunition into the battle is a better indicator of the army’s efficiency.
The competence of both sides improved out of recognition as the war progressed. The crossing of the Delaware in mid-winter at Trenton by the American troops, many without shoes, and the resistance of the 40th Foot in Chew’s House at Germantown are examples of inspiring conduct in battle on each side.
Benedict Arnold as a brigadier in the
British Army after he changed sides.
The war began with the attempt by Gage to seize the armaments held by Congress at Concord and the exchange of shots at Lexington.
Following the success of the running fight that saw the British hurrying back to Boston, the New England militia invested the city, building entrenchments along the west bank of the bay.