The End of the Revolution: 1779-1783

Georgia and South Carolina

In the latter years of the Revolutionary War, the British shifted their strategic focus to the southern colonies, confident of their abilities to recruit support among Loyalists there.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the successes and failures of the British Southern Strategy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The British “Southern Strategy” relied upon the conviction that the South harbored many Loyalist sympathizers, a hypothesis that would ultimately be proven false.
  • In December 1778, British forces succeeded in capturing Savannah, Georgia, which became their base for operations throughout the South.
  • The additional loss of Charleston, South Carolina, and its troops was a serious blow to the American cause, temporarily collapsing American military operations in the South.
  • British strength in the Carolinas was greatly undermined by their inability to raise
    additional troops from among Loyalist sympathizers in the region. Too few Loyalists enlisted, and those who did were left isolated and vulnerable once the British army moved out of their territory.
  • Though unsuccessful, Greene’s Siege of Ninety Six led the weakened British forces to abandon Ninety Six and Camden, effectively reducing the British presence in South Carolina to the port of Charleston.
  • The final major engagement of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas took place in Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, in September 1781. Nathanael Greene, supported by 2,600 troops, engaged 2,000 British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart.
  • Though the tactical victor of the Battle of Eutaw Springs is contested, the engagement so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene held them for the remaining months of the war.

Key Terms

  • Battle of Camden: A major victory for the British over the colonial army on August 16, 1780. The British victory paved the way for their invasion of North Carolina.
  • Nathanael Greene: A major general of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War.
  • Battle of Eutaw Springs: The final battle in South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War, occurring in September 1781. It was tactically inconclusive, but still forced the weakened British army to withdraw to Charleston.

In 1778, the British turned their attention to the South, hoping to draw upon a strong Southern Loyalist base. Expectations for this support base were fueled by accounts of Loyalist exiles in London who had direct access to American Secretary George Germain. Keen to recover their lands, exiles exaggerated the level of potential Loyalist support in the South to encourage the British to undertake a major operation in the southern colonies.

The misconception that the British would eventually find substantial support for their actions in the South held until the final days of the war. As evidence of this, British General Charles Cornwallis stated in a 1780 message to his superior officer that, “Our assurances of attachment from our poor distressed friends in North Carolina are as strong as ever.” As the British campaign in the South progressed, this assumption was shown to be incorrect.

In addition to looking for Loyalist support, Britain also hoped to “scare” Americans back to the crown by raising fear of massive slave revolts. As a part of the Southern Strategy, the British encouraged slaves to flee to their strongholds, promising them freedom. The strategy backfired, but tens of thousands of African Americans sought refuge with the British, and at the conclusion of the war, some 20,000 African Americans left with the British, preferring an uncertain future elsewhere to a return to their old masters. African Americans ended up in Canada, Britain, the West Indies, and Europe. In 1792, 1,200 black Loyalists who had settled in Nova Scotia left for Sierra Leone, a colony on the west coast of Africa established by Britain specifically for former slaves.

Engagements in Savannah

On December 29, 1778, a British expeditionary corps of 3,500 men from New York, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, captured Savannah, Georgia. In October 1779, French and Revolutionary forces attempted to retake Savannah. Under the leadership of General Benjamin Lincoln, this effort was a spectacular failure with combined French-American forces suffering approximately 900 casualties compared to 50 British casualties. With Savannah secured, British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton launched a new assault on Charleston, South Carolina, which he had failed to capture in 1776.

Major Operations in the South, 1780–1781

Clinton moved against Charleston in 1780, blockading the harbor in March and bringing 10,000 troops to the area. His advance on the city was uncontested. Inside the city, General Lincoln commanded approximately 2,650 Continentals and 2,500 militiamen. In early March, Clinton began constructing siege lines and commenced bombardment of the town.

On May 12, 1780, General Lincoln surrendered 5,000 men—the largest surrender of U.S. troops prior to the American Civil War. With relatively few casualties, Clinton had seized the South’s biggest city and seaport, winning perhaps the greatest British victory of the war. The loss of the city and its troops was a serious blow to the American cause because it temporarily collapsed American military operations in the South. Following the victory at Charleston, General Clinton turned over British operations in the South to his second-in-command, Lord Cornwallis.

The Continental Congress responded to the fall of Charleston by dispatching General Horatio Gates, a celebrated hero in the Battle of Saratoga, to the South with a new army. However, Gates promptly suffered one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780. This loss set the stage for Cornwallis to invade North Carolina.

The success of Cornwallis in the Carolinas was greatly undermined by Britain’s inability to raise large Loyalist armies. Too few Loyalists enlisted, and those who did were left isolated and vulnerable once the British army moved out of their territory. British attempts to raise Loyalists in North Carolina were effectively crushed when a Patriot militia defeated a large force of Loyalists in the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780.

General Gates was replaced by George Washington ‘s most dependable subordinate, Continental General Nathanael Greene. Greene proceeded to wear down his opponents in a series of operations referred to as the “Race to the Dan,” named for the Dan River that flows near the border between North Carolina and Virginia. In the “Race to the Dan,” the British won many tactical victories, none of which culminated in any broad strategic advantage. In almost all cases, the “victories” strategically weakened the British army due to large numbers of casualties, leaving the Continental Army intact to continue fighting.

In the late spring of 1781, Greene led the Siege of Ninety Six in an attempt to secure the village of Ninety Six, South Carolina. Though unsuccessful, the actions of Greene and allied militia commanders led the weakened British forces to abandon Ninety Six and Camden, effectively reducing the British presence in South Carolina to the port of Charleston. The final major battle of the Carolinas took place in Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, on September 1781. Nathanael Greene, supported by 2,600 troops, engaged 2,000 British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart. Though the tactical victor of the Battle of Eutaw Springs is contested, this engagement so weakened the British that they withdrew to Charleston, where Greene held them for the remaining months of the war.

This black and white illustration shows 30 or so men clashing at the Siege of Savannah.

Siege of Savannah: Attack on Savannah by A. I. Keller.

Surrender at Yorktown

The siege of Yorktown by combined French and American forces in the autumn of 1781 was the decisive battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons for Britain’s defeat at Yorktown

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • General George Washington and French commander Rochambeau concentrated military actions in New York, but shifted attention to operations in Virginia in the summer of 1781, upon receiving the support of French commander comte de Grasse.
  • While sending false reports to the British that a siege of New York was planned, Washington and Rochambeau departed New York on August 19, and led 4,000 French and 3,000 American soldiers to join de Grasse in Yorktown, in what has since become known as the Celebrated March.
  • The British underestimated the strength of the French fleet and in early September, were defeated by de Grasse’s fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake, after which they were forced to fall back to New York.
  • On September 14, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the revolutionary allies’ army and naval forces surrounded Cornwallis.
  • With the American artillery closing in, the British situation began to deteriorate rapidly and Cornwallis asked for terms of capitulation on the 17th.
  • After two days of negotiation, Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and enlisted men in Yorktown and a further 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River to Washington and Rochambeau on October 19, 1781. Cornwallis did not attend the surrender ceremony, claiming illness.
  • With the crippling surrender at Yorktown, the British war effort ground to a halt.
  • Negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began, resulting in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Key Terms

  • Celebrated March: The 680-mile march of the combined Continental Army of Washington and the French Expeditionary Force under comte de Rochambeau from Newport, Rhode Island, to Virginia, ending at the decisive siege at Yorktown in 1781.
  • Battle of the Chesapeake: A crucial naval battle in the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, between a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse. The British were defeated and fled to New York, allowing the French to blockade Yorktown.
  • Siege of Yorktown: The last major land battle of the Revolutionary War, begun on September 14, 1781, in which combined French and colonial forces surrounded and bombarded the British army in Yorktown, forcing their surrender.

Surrender at Yorktown

The culminating engagement of the Revolutionary War, the Siege of Yorktown, marked the end of British power in the colonies. The combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by the comte de Rochambeau resulted in a decisive victory over the British army forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

Initial Movements

On May 20, 1781, Cornwallis arrived at Petersburg, Virginia, with 1,500 men after suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Cornwallis sent raiders into central Virginia, attacking depots and destroying supply convoys, in an attempt to cut off Continental supply lines. Cornwallis was shadowed by a force of 4,500 French forces under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton ordered Cornwallis first to Portsmouth and then to Yorktown, where he was instructed to build fortifications for a deep water port.

In 1780, over 5,000 French soldiers had landed in Rhode Island to support their American allies in operations against British-controlled New York City. In July 1781, Washington proposed a joint attack by Franco-Continental forces on the northern part of Manhattan Island, but was advised against this tactic by his comrades. Washington and French commander Rochambeau shifted attention to operations in Virginia upon receiving the support of French Lieutenant General comte de Grasse. In August 1781, in what has since become known as the Celebrated March, the combined armies of Washington and Rochambeau departed from New York to Virginia, engaging in tactics of deception to lead the British to believe a siege of New York was planned.

Lieutenant General comte de Grasse sailed from the West Indies and arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in late August 1781. British Admiral Sir Thomas Graves led a fleet from New York to meet de Grasse but underestimated the strength of the French fleet. In early September, the British were defeated by de Grasse in the Battle of the Chesapeake and forced to fall back to New York. As a result of this victory, de Grasse established a naval blockade of Yorktown.

On September 14, Washington arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the revolutionary allies’ army and naval forces surrounded Cornwallis. Soon after, the allies built their first parallel (earthworks to support a siege) and began the bombardment of British forces. On September 26, transports with artillery, siege tools, and French infantry and assault troops arrived from the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, giving Washington command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. On September 28, Washington led the army out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown.

Cornwallis initially relied on a chain of seven redoubts and batteries linked by earthworks along with batteries that covered the narrows of the York River at Gloucester Point. However, the British general soon pulled back from all of his outer defenses. While anticipating the arrival of a relief force of 5,000 men within one week, the British forces occupied three defenses: Fusilier’s Redoubt on the west side of the town and Redoubts 9 and 10 in the east.

The Americans and the French took possession of the abandoned British defenses and began to establish their own batteries there. With the British outer defenses in their hands, allied engineers began to lay out positions for the artillery and Continental forces, improved their works, and deepened their trenches.

Washington fired the first gun on October 9. With the British defense weakened, Washington sent two columns to attack the last major remaining British outer defenses, on October 14, 1781. A French column took Redoubt 9 and an American column took Redoubt 10. Following these successes, the allies were able to complete their second parallel.

On October 16, Cornwallis made an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate his troops across the York River to Gloucester Point. With the American artillery closing in, the British situation began to deteriorate rapidly, and Cornwallis asked for terms of capitulation on the 17th. After two days of negotiation, Cornwallis surrendered 7,087 officers and enlisted men in Yorktown and a further 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River to Washington and Rochambeau. Cornwallis did not attend the surrender ceremony, claiming illness.

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis: Depicting the British surrendering to French (left) and American (right) troops. Oil on canvas, by John Trumbull, 1820.

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown

The articles of capitulation were signed on October 19, 1781. Signatories included Washington; Rochambeau; St. Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent; the comte de Barras (on behalf of the French Navy); Cornwallis; and Lieutenant Thomas Symonds, the senior Royal Navy officer present. Cornwallis’ men were declared prisoners of war and promised good treatment in American camps. Officers were permitted to return home after taking their parole.

The Treaty of Paris

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 ended the American Revolutionary War, granting additional territory to the U.S. and its allies, France and Spain.

Learning Objectives

Examine how the Treaty of Paris reshaped the United States and redefined boundaries in North America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, ended the American Revolutionary War and greatly increased the United States’s territory, enabling the nation to rapidly become a major international trading partner.
  • The territories of East and West Florida were ceded to Spain, as was the Mediterranean island of Minorca, while the Bahama Islands, Grenada, and Montserrat, captured by the French and Spanish, were returned to Britain.
  • The treaty with France primarily focused on exchanges of captured territory, but also reinforced earlier treaties guaranteeing fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland.
  • Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured by the British in 1781, were returned by Britain in exchange for trading privileges in that region.
  • In the Great Lakes region, the British adopted a very generous interpretation of the stipulation that they should relinquish control “with all convenient speed,” claiming they needed time to negotiate with the American Indians. The matter was settled by the Jay Treaty in 1794.
  • Several of the articles of the Treaty of Paris were violated by all sides in the chaotic aftermath of the war.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Madrid: The treaty between Spain and the United States, signed in 1795, that guaranteed American access to the Mississippi River and established the borders of Florida, a Spanish possession.
  • Jay Treaty: Signed in 1794, this treaty guaranteed the removal of British forces from forts in the Northwest Territories, committed disputes over wartime debts to arbitration, gave the U.S. limited trading rights with British colonies, and restricted U.S. cotton exports. The treaty settled issues left unresolved by the Treaty of Paris.

The Treaty of Paris

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, ended the American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States and its allies. The terms of the Treaty of Paris greatly enlarged the boundaries of the United States, enabling the young nation to rapidly become a major international trading partner. The treaty was signed at the Hotel d’York by U.S. representatives John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, as well as David Hartley, a member of the British Parliament who represented King George III in negotiations. The treaty was made up of 10 articles that addressed territorial rights, treatment of Loyalists, and rights to bodies of water, property, and debt. The American Congress of the Confederation ratified the Treaty of Paris on January 14, 1784, and copies were sent back to Europe for ratification by all other parties, reaching the French first in March. The British ratified the treaty on April 9, 1784.

Treaty Terms

The 10 articles of the Treaty of Paris are as follows. Of these articles, only the first remains in effect to the present day.

  1. Acknowledgment that the United States is free, sovereign, and independent, and that the British Crown, including all heirs and successors, relinquish claims to the government as well as proprietary and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.
  2. Establishment of the boundaries between the U.S. and British North America.
  3. Granting of fishing rights to U.S. fishermen in the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, and in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
  4. Recognition of lawful contracted debts to be paid to creditors on either side.
  5. Duty of the Congress of the Confederation to “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures recognition of the rightful owners of all confiscated lands and provisions for “restitution of all estates, rights, and properties which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects” (i.e., Loyalists).
  6. Prevention of future confiscations of Loyalist property by the U.S.
  7. Release of prisoners of war on either side, and for all property left in the U.S. by the British government to be left unmolested, including slaves.
  8. Perpetual access rights to the Mississippi River by both Great Britain and the U.S.
  9. Return of territories captured by the U.S. during the war without compensation.
  10. Ratification of the treaty within six months of signing by contracting parties.

Other Territorial Cessions and Gains

On September 3, Britain signed separate agreements with France and Spain and, provisionally, with the Netherlands. The territories of East and West Florida were ceded to Spain, as was the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Meanwhile, the Bahama Islands, Grenada, and Montserrat, captured by the French and Spanish, were returned to Britain.

The treaty with France primarily focused on exchanges of captured territory, but also reinforced earlier treaties guaranteeing French fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland. France’s only territorial gains were the island of Tobago and Senegal in West Africa. Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured by the British in 1781, were returned by Britain in exchange for trading privileges in that region.

In the Great Lakes region, the British adopted a very generous interpretation of the stipulation that they should relinquish control “with all convenient speed.” The British argued that they needed time to negotiate with the American Indians, who had defended the region from the United States but had been utterly ignored in the treaty. Even after these negotiations were concluded, Britain retained control of the region as leverage in order to gain recompense for confiscated Loyalist property. This matter was finally settled by the Jay Treaty in 1794, and America’s ability to bargain on all these points was greatly strengthened by the creation of a new constitution in 1787.

Violations

Several of the articles of the Treaty of Paris were violated by all sides in the chaotic aftermath of the war. Individual states ignored federal recommendations to restore confiscated Loyalist property, as required by Article 5 of the Treaty, and also continued the practice of confiscating Loyalist property for “unpaid debts,” in violation of Article 6. Some, notably the state of Virginia, also maintained laws against payment of debts to British creditors, defying Article 4. Individual British soldiers ignored the provision of Article 7, which required them to abandon their property in the United States, particularly in respect to their relinquishment of slaves.

The treaty between Spain and Great Britain did not establish any clearly defined northern boundary to Spanish-controlled Florida. Spain used its control of Florida to block American access to the Mississippi in defiance of Article 8 of the Treaty of Paris. The resulting territory dispute between Spain and the United States was resolved with the Treaty of Madrid, or Pinckney’s Treaty, in 1795.

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Treaty of Paris: Benjamin West’s painting of the delegations at the Treaty of Paris: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin. The British delegation refused to pose, and the painting was never completed.

The Changed Role of Women

Though the American Revolution brought hope for greater liberties to many, most of the gains made by women during the Revolution did not remain permanent or lead to further freedoms immediately following the Revolutionary period.

Learning Objectives

Describe how the Revolution changed the roles women played in colonial society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The concept of a Republican Motherhood helped to liberalize the roles open to white women in the post-Revolutionary era.
  • Many gains made by women during the war, including increased public and civic profiles and the ability to run businesses in the absence of their male relatives, were not permanent, and women remained subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands.
  • American Indians experienced extreme disruptions to traditional gender roles due to war-related upheavals and American policy following the Revolutionary period.
  • Many African American women participated in a massive migration to northern urban areas following the war.
  • As a result of war-related upheaval and the expansion of slavery, African American women struggled to maintain family ties following the Revolutionary period.

Key Terms

  • republicanism: An ideology in which citizens exercise their popular sovereignty as the basis of governance within a state.
  • Republican Motherhood: The concept that raises women’s roles as civic educators within the nuclear family in light of the importance of raising a virtuous citizenry on which a healthy republic can rely.

The American Revolution had a deep effect on the philosophical underpinnings of American society. One such effect the Revolution and its democratic ideals had was on the roles American women played in society.

The Republican Motherhood evolved as a concept during this period, reflecting the importance of republicanism as a dominant American ideology. Because the concept of republicanism required a virtuous citizenry on which a successful republic could then rest, women were perceived as fulfilling an essential role in the household, instilling children with values conducive to a healthy republic. Republicanism also affected a wife’s relationship with her husband, with virtues such as love and affection becoming more essential to the ideal marital relationship than obedience and subservience.

Because of women’s roles during the Revolution, whether they contributed to the war effort via fundraising or stepped in to run a family business in the absence of a male relative, many historians argue that an ongoing debate on the rights of women was begun. Indeed, the 1787 U.S. Constitution does not mention the term “man,” but rather “persons” or “people.” Due to the increased emphasis placed on women’s civic duties within the home, the environment was also more favorable to their participation in politics as well as their further education. For example, The Gleaner, a three-volume book of political essays and plays self-published in 1798 by Judith Sargent Murray, became a minor classic and was read by George Washington and John Adams. Historian Rosemarie Zagarri argues that in the post-Revolutionary period, a “comprehensive transformation in women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable.”

Nonetheless, many of the gains made by women during the war did not remain permanent or lead to further strides in women’s rights in the immediate follow-up to the war. Women still found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands. Furthermore, the opening of possibilities also engendered a backlash that some argue set back the cause of women’s rights and led to greater marginalization of women within the realm of politics.

American Indian Women

The American Revolution was particularly disruptive to American Indian women who found themselves displaced from traditional social roles as a result of war-related upheavals and American policy. Post-Revolutionary guidelines called for the “civilization” of American Indian people, which, according to the American government, entailed shifting American Indian societies from hunting-based to agricultural-based. The irony in this stated policy was the American government’s ignorance as to American Indian societal practices in which agriculture was a widely spread practice, mostly spearheaded by American Indian women. However, the American government overlooked American Indian women’s contributions to the socioeconomic sphere completely due to the belief held by many policymakers that farming could not be significant enough within American Indian society if women were the main contributors to its operation. As a result, American policy focused on encouraging American Indian women to take up spinning and weaving and forcing men to farm, reversing gender roles and causing severe social problems.

African American Women

The period directly following the Revolutionary War was one of great hope and indecision for African Americans. Many hoped that independence from Great Britain would bring with it the abolition of slavery, but instead, slavery was written into the new Constitution. A massive migration, not unlike the Great Migration many years later, took place at the close of the war with primarily African American women moving to urban areas in the North. Prior to the Revolution, urban populations in the North were overwhelmingly male, but by 1806, women outnumbered men four to three in New York City. Most free African Americans in northern urban centers were employed in “service trades” such as cooking and catering, cleaning stables, cutting hair, or driving coaches.

As with many families, African American family life was disrupted heavily in the aftermath of war, especially as slavery became more entrenched and expanded westward. For example, in the Chesapeake region, agricultural and economic patterns changed after the war with many planters moving away from labor-intensive tobacco as a cash crop and diversifying their plantings. Many slaves were sold in the process, usually to the Lower South or West where slave agriculture was expanding. Additionally, many employers in the North refused to house whole families of free African Americans, preferring only to board domestic laborers, who tended to be women. African American women made efforts to continue to support and maintain ties to their kin in these situations, but obstacles remained ever-present and challenging.