The American Revolution, Revolutionary War Battles Timeline – 1770-1783
1770 – Boston Massacre
1773 – Boston Tea Party
1775 – Battle of Lexington and Concord
1775 – Battle of Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill
1775 – Battle of Lake Champlain or Battle of Valcour Island
1776 – Battle of Trenton
1777 – Valley Forge
1779 – “Light Horse” Harry Lee attacks Paulus Hook, NJ
1780 – Battle of Kings Mountain, SC
1781 – Battle of Yorktown
The Boston Massacre was an incident that led to the deaths of five civilians at the hands of British troops on March 5, 1770, the legal aftermath of which helped spark the rebellion in some of the British American colonies, which culminated in the American Revolutionary War. A heavy British military presence in Boston led to a tense situation that boiled over into incitement of brawls between soldiers and civilians and eventually led to troops discharging their muskets after being attacked by a rioting crowd. Three civilians were killed at the scene of the shooting, eleven were injured, and two died after the incident.
British troops were sent to Boston in 1768 to help officials enforce the Townshend Acts, a series of laws passed by the British Parliament. The purpose of the Townshend program was to make colonial governors and judges independent of colonial control, to create a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations, and to establish the controversial precedent that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.
Colonists objected that the Townshend Acts were a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of British subjects in the colonies. Boston was a center of the resistance. The Massachusetts House of Representatives began a campaign against the Townshend Acts by sending a petition to King George asking for the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. On March 27 the soldiers, Captain Preston and four men who were in the Customs House and alleged to have fired shots, were indicted for murder.
Major Historical Figures: General Thomas Gage, Crispus Attucks
The Boston Tea Party was a direct action by colonists in Boston, Massachusetts, against the British government. On December 16, 1773, after officials in Boston refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain, a group of colonists boarded the ships and destroyed the tea by throwing it into Boston Harbor. The incident remains an iconic event of American history, and other political protests often refer to it.
The Tea Party was the culmination of a resistance movement throughout British America against the Tea Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected to the Tea Act for a variety of reasons, especially because they believed that it violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives. Protesters had successfully prevented the unloading of taxed tea in three other colonies, but in Boston, embattled Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the tea to be returned to Britain. He apparently did not expect that the protesters would choose to destroy the tea rather than concede the authority of a legislature in which they were not directly represented.
The Boston Tea Party was a key event in the growth of the American Revolution. Parliament responded in 1774 with the Coercive Acts, which, among other provisions, closed Boston’s commerce until the British East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. Colonists in turn responded to the Coercive Acts with additional acts of protest, and by convening the First Continental Congress, which petitioned the British monarch for repeal of the acts and coordinated colonial resistance to them. The crisis escalated, and the American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.
Major Historical Figures: Nathaniel Bradlee, Thomas Crafts, Samuel Cooper, John Crane, George Hewes, Samuel Hobbs, David Kinnison, Amos Lincoln, Thomas Melvill, William Molineaux, Joseph Payson, Henry Prentiss, Paul Revere, Ebeneezer Stevens, Nathaniel Willis, Joshua Wyeth, Thomas Young
1775-1783 – American Revolutionary War
Following several years of rising tensions and the occupation of Boston by British troops, the military governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, began moving to secure the colony’s military supplies to keep them from the Patriot militias. His actions received official sanction on April 14, 1775, when orders arrived from the Secretary of State, the Earl of Dartmouth, commanding him to disarm the rebellious militias and to arrest key colonial leaders. Believing the militias to be hoarding supplies at Concord, Gage made plans for part of his force to march and occupy the town. On April 16, Gage sent a scouting party out of the city towards Concord. While this patrol gathered intelligence, it also alerted the colonials that the British were planning to move against them. Aware of Gage’s orders from Dartmouth, many key colonial figures, such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams, left Boston to seek safety in the country. As a result, many of the supplies at Concord had been removed to other towns.
Around 9:00-10:00 that night, Patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren informed Paul Revere and William Dawes that the British would be embarking that night for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Slipping out of the city by different routes, Revere and Dawes made their famous ride west to warn that the British were approaching. In Lexington, Captain John Parker mustered the town’s militia and had them fall into ranks on the town green with orders not to fire unless fired upon. Around sunrise, Smith’s advance force, led by Major John Pitcairn, arrived in Lexington. Riding forward, Pitcairn demanded the militia to disperse and lay down their arms. Parker partially complied and ordered his men to go home, but to retain their muskets.
As the militia began to move, a shot rang out from an unknown source. Charging forward the British drove the militia from the green. When the smoke cleared, eight of the militia were dead and another ten wounded. One British soldier was injured in the exchange. Departing Lexington, the British pushed on towards Concord. Outside of the town, the Concord militia fell back through the town and took up a position on a hill across the North Bridge. Smith’s men occupied the town and broke into detachments to search for the colonial munitions. After passing through Lincoln, Smith’s troops were attacked at the “Bloody Angle” by 200 men from Bedford and Lincoln. Firing from behind trees and fences, they were joined by other militiamen who took up positions across the road, catching the British in a crossfire. In the day’s fighting, the Massachusetts militia had 50 killed, 39 wounded, and 5 missing. For the British, the long march cost them 73 killed, 173 wounded, and 26 missing. The fighting at Lexington and Concord proved to be the opening battles of the American Revolution. Rushing to Boston, the Massachusetts militia was soon joined by troops from other colonies ultimately forming a force of around 20,000.
Major Historical Figures: Thomas Gage, John Parker, James Barrett, John Buttrick, William Heath, Joseph Warren, Francis Smith, John Pitcairn, Walter Laurie, Hugh Percy, Paul Revere, William Dawes
On June 15, 1775 the American colonists heard news that the British planned to control the Charlestown peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers. Bunker’s and Breed’s Hill on this peninsula overlooked both Boston and its harbor, thus making the hills critical vantage points. In order to beat the British to the high ground, General Prescott took 1,200 soldiers to dig into and fortify Bunker Hill with the cover of night on June 16. When dawn broke, the British were stunned to see Breed’s Hill fortified overnight with a 160-by-30-foot earthen structure. The British General, Gage, dispatched 2,300 troops under the command of Major General Howe to take control of the hill. So it came to be that General Prescott did not actually fortify Bunker’s Hill, but Breed’s Hill instead.
The fighting began as soon as the day did. As soon as the men on British frigate awoke they opened fire on the colonial fortifications. The British just expected to march up the hill and just scare the colonists away. The British Regulars advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass. As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. The British forces were driven back twice, but on their third and final thrust forward the British were able to break through the colonists’ line, overrunning the American fortifications, thus taking the hill. The colonists had run out of ammunition and supplies.
The colonists fled back up the peninsula since it was there only escape route. This battle, which lasted for approximately three hours, was one of the deadliest of the Revolutionary War. Although the British technically won the battle because they took control of the hill, they suffered too many losses to fully benefit from it. The British had suffered more than one thousand casualties out of the 2,300 or so who fought. While the colonists only suffered 400 to 600 casualties from an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 men.
Major Historical Figures: William Howe, Sir Robert Pigot, James Abercombie, John Pitcairn, Henry Clinton, Samuel Graves, Israel Putnam, William Prescott, Joseph Warren, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark
The naval Battle of Valcour Island, also known as the Battle of Valcour Bay, took place on October 11, 1776, on Lake Champlain. The battle is generally regarded as one of the first naval battles of the American Revolutionary war. Most of the ships in the American fleet under the command of Benedict Arnold were captured or destroyed by a British force under the overall direction of General Guy Carleton. The American defense of Lake Champlain stalled British plans to reach the upper Hudson River valley. The Continental Army had retreated from Quebec to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point in June 1776 after British forces were massively reinforced. They spent the summer of 1776 fortifying those forts, and building additional ships to augment the small American fleet already on the lake. General Carleton had a 9,000 man army at Fort Saint-Jean, but needed to build a fleet to carry it on the lake.
The Americans, during their retreat, had either taken or destroyed most of the ships on the lake. By early October, the British fleet, which significantly outgunned the American fleet, was ready for launch. On October 11, Arnold drew the British fleet to a position he had carefully chosen to limit their advantages. In the battle that followed, many of the American ships were damaged or destroyed. That night Arnold sneaked the American fleet past the British one, beginning a retreat toward Crown Point and Ticonderoga. Unfavorable weather hampered the American retreat, and more of the fleet was either captured or grounded and burned before it could reach Crown Point. Upon reaching Crown Point Benedict Arnold had the fort’s buildings burned and retreated to Ticonderoga. The British fleet included four officers who later became admirals in the Royal Navy.
Major Historical Figures: Benedict Arnold, Guy Carleton, Thomas Pringle
After being driven out of New York by the British and forced to retreat to the West bank of the Delaware during the late summer of 1776, the American cause was at a low ebb. In the harsh winter Washington was faced with the annual crisis of the expiry of the Continental Army’s period of enlistment. He resolved to attack the Hessian position at Trenton on the extreme southern end of the over extended British line along the Delaware, before his army dispersed. Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware at three points with a force commanded by Lt Col Cadwallader with a Rhode Island regiment, some Pennsylvanians, Delaware militia and two guns, a second force under Brigadier General James Ewing of militia and the third commanded by himself which would cross the river above Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison in the town.
Washington had some 2,400 men from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The force paraded in the afternoon and set off for the Delaware River where they embarked in a flotilla of the characteristic Delaware river boats. It was a cold dark night and the river was running with flowing ice. At about 11pm a heavy snow and sleet storm broke. Washington’s force did not reach the east bank until around 3am. His soldiers were badly clothed and many did not have shoes. The German garrison comprised the regiments of Rall, Knyphausen and Lossberg, with Hessian jagers and a troop of the British 16th Light Dragoons. The Hessian commander Colonel Rall had been ordered to construct defense works around the town but had not troubled to do so.
On the night before the attack Rall was at dinner when he was brought information that the Americans were approaching. He ignored the message. The Hessians attempted to form in the town but were under artillery fire and attack from front and rear. The Americans occupied the houses and shot down the German gunners and foot soldiers during which Colonel Rall was fatally wounded. Rall’s troops retreated to an orchard in the South East of the town where they surrendered. Ewing and Cadwallader failed to make the river crossing and took no part in the attack.
The Americans suffered 4 casualties. The Hessians suffered 20 killed and around 100 wounded. 1,000 were captured. The effect of the battle of Trenton was out of all proportion to the numbers involved and the casualties. The American effort across the colonies was galvanized and the psychological dominance achieved by the British in the preceding year overturned. Howe was stunned that a strong German contingent could be surprised in such a manner and put up so little resistance. Washington’s constant problem was to maintain the enthusiasm of his army for the war, particularly with the system of one year recruitment and Trenton proved a much needed encouragement. Washington’s army crossing the Delaware River in the freezing conditions has become an important national image for the United States as can be seen in Emmanuel Leutze’s picture. Present at the battle were: two other future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
Major Historical Figures: George Washington, Johann Rall, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton
In the fall of 1777, General George Washington’s Continental Army moved south from New Jersey to defend the capital of Philadelphia from the advancing forces of General William Howe. Clashing at Brandywine on September 11, Washington was decisively defeated, leading the Continental Congress to flee the city. Fifteen days later, after outmaneuvering Washington, Howe entered Philadelphia unopposed. Seeking to regain the initiative, Washington struck at Germantown on October 4, but was again defeated. With the campaign season ending and cold weather rapidly approaching, Washington moved his army into winter quarters. For his winter encampment, Washington selected Valley Forge on the Schuylkill River approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. With its high ground and position near the river, Valley Forge was easily defensible, but still close enough to the city for Washington to maintain pressure on the British. Despite the defeats of the fall, the 12,000 men of the Continental Army were in good spirits when they marched into Valley Forge on December 19, 1777.
Under the direction of the army’s engineers, the men began constructing over 2,000 log huts laid out along military streets. In addition, defensive trenches and five redoubts were built to protect the encampment. To facilitate re-supply of the army, a bridge was erected over the Schuylkill. Though far from ideal, the conditions of the encampment were on par with the Continental soldier’s routine privations. During the early months of the encampment, supplies and provisions were scarce, but available. Soldiers made due with subsistence meals such as “firecake,” a mixture of water and flour. While a lack of clothing caused suffering among some the men, many were fully uniformed with the best equipped units used for foraging and patrols. During the early months at Valley Forge, Washington lobbied to improve the army’s supply situation with some success.
On February 23, 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived in the camp. A former member of the Prussian General Staff, von Steuben had been recruited to the American cause in Paris by Benjamin Franklin. Accepted by Washington, von Steuben was put to work designing a training program for the army. Though he spoke no English, von Steuben commenced his program in March with the aid of interpreters. Beginning with a “model company” of 100 chosen men, von Steuben instructed them in drill, maneuver, and a simplified manual of arms. These 100 men were in turn sent out to other units to repeat the process and so on until the entire army was trained. Von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training for recruits which educated them in the basics of soldiering. With the arrival of warmer weather in March, disease began to strike at the army. Over the next three months, influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery all erupted within the encampment. Of the 2,000 men who died at Valley Forge, over two-thirds were killed by disease. These outbreaks were eventually contained through sanitation regulations, inoculations, and the work of surgeons. Surveying the encampment, von Steuben greatly improved sanitation by reorganizing the camp and repositioning kitchens and latrines. The results of von Steuben’s training were immediately evident at Barren Hill (May 20) and the Battle of Monmouth (June 28). In both cases, the Continental soldiers stood up to and fought on equal footing with the British professionals.
Major Historical Figures: George Washington, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr, John Cadwalader, John Cochran, Baron Johan DeKalb, Chevalier Louis Lebègue dePresle Duportail, Nathanael Greene, Alexander Hamilton, Jedediah Huntingdon, Henry Knox, The Marquis de Lafayette, Jacob Latch, Ebenezer Learned, John Marshall, Lachlan McIntosh, Allan McLane, James Monroe, Martha Washington, Anthony Wayne, John Armstrong
On July 12, 1776, the new fort at Paulus Hook traded cannon fire with the 40-gun HMS Phoenix and the 20-gun Rose as those British warships sailed to New York. That same evening, General Lord William Howe and a huge British invasion fleet also sailed by the little American stronghold. After the Americans were defeated at the Battle of Long Island, General George Washington directed Major General Hugh Mercer to evacuate Paulus Hook on the 23rd. Hours after the rear guard left, British troops landed on the beach, and for a long time thereafter Paulus Hook was their only permanent stronghold in New Jersey. Paulus Hook was well situated to dominate the gateway to northern New Jersey.
From 1776 to the spring of 1779, New Jersey was the scene of constant skirmishes and major battles. During 1779, Washington maneuvered and constantly repositioned troops throughout the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania region. Worried, the Loyalists in New York City pressed General Sir Henry Clinton, then commander of British forces there, into action. In May, more than 70 ships and 150 flatboats loaded with Redcoats sailed past Paulus Hook to seize the small rebel-held fort at Stony Point, N.Y. Clinton then returned to New York City, leaving about 1,000 troops behind to rebuild the works. Washington wanted Stony Point retaken. He directed cavalry Major Henry Lee (known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee) to gather information.
Acting on information supplied by Lee, on July 16, 1779, Major General Anthony Wayne led a newly formed light infantry unit in a brilliant bayonet charge that retook Stony Point. Inspired by Wayne’s attack, Lee approached Washington with a similar plan to take Paulus Hook. Early in the evening of August 18, 1779, Lee organized his strike force, consisting of approximately 400 men. The lead troops crossed the first ditch without difficulty and were not challenged until they reached the gates of the fort. A shot rang out from the gate blockhouse. The alarm was sounded, and British troops ran to the main gate to counterattack. Lee’s troops climbed up the embankments. Lee’s casualties so far totaled only two men killed and three wounded. In a mere 20 minutes, Lee’s men overpowered the fort, killed or wounded more than 30 British soldiers and took 159 prisoners-all without firing a shot!
On Christmas Day 1779, the British garrison at Paulus Hook watched as Clinton sailed out of New York Harbor with his fleet of 90 ships and 8,000 troops, bound for Charleston, S.C. The war was moving south. Lee and his dragoon legion went on to fight with distinction in the southern campaign, under Major General Nathanael Greene. After the war, “Light Horse” Harry Lee was elected a representative to Congress and served as Governor of Virginia. “Light Horse” Harry Lee is the father of the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.
Major Historical Figures: Henry Lee III, William Sutherland, George Washington, Lord William Howe
The Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was a decisive Patriot victory in the Southern campaign of the American Revolutionary War. Frontier militia loyal to the United States overwhelmed the Loyalist American militia led by British Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71st Foot. Here less than 1000 men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position.
The battle opened on October 7, 1780, around 3 pm when 900 Patriots (including John Crockett, the father of Davy Crockett), approached the steep base of Kings Mountain. The rebels formed eight groups of 100 to 200 men. Ferguson, completely unaware that the rebels had caught up to him, was at the top of the mountain with some 1100 men. They caught the Loyalists by surprise. The Patriots crept up the hill and fired on the Loyalists from behind rocks and trees. Ferguson rallied his troops and launched a bayonet charge against Campbell and Sevier’s men. With no bayonets of their own, the rebels retreated down the hill and into the woods. Campbell rallied his troops, returned to the base of the hill, and resumed firing. Ferguson launched two more bayonet charges during the course of the battle. This became the pattern of the battle all around the Loyalist position. It was hard for the Loyalists to find a target because the Patriots were constantly moving using cover and concealment. Additionally, the downhill angle of the hill caused the Loyalists to overshoot.
Finally Ferguson gathered a few officers together and attempted to cut through the Patriot ring, but Sevier’s men fired a volley and Ferguson was shot dead from his horse. Seeing their leader fall, the Loyalists began to surrender. The Battle of Kings Mountain lasted 65 minutes. The Loyalists suffered 244 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. The Patriot militia suffered 29 killed and 58 wounded. The Rebels had to move out quickly for fear that Cornwallis would advance to meet them. Kings Mountain was a pivotal moment in the history of the American Revolution. Coming after a series of disasters and humiliations in the Carolinas—the fall of Charleston and capture of the American army there, the destruction of another American army at the Battle of Camden, the Waxhaws Massacre—the surprising, decisive victory at Kings Mountain was a great boost to Patriot morale. Additionally, the destruction of Ferguson’s command and the looming threat of Patriot militia in the mountains caused Lord Cornwallis to cancel his plans to invade North Carolina; he instead evacuated Charlotte and retreated to South Carolina. He would not return to North Carolina until early 1781, when he was chasing Nathanael Greene after the Americans had dealt British arms another devastating defeat at the Battle of Cowpens.
Major Historical Figures: James Johnston, William Campbell, John Sevier, Frederick Hambright (Hambrecht), Joseph McDowell, Benjamin Cleveland, James Williams, Isaac Shelby, Joseph Winston, William Chronicle, Patrick Ferguson, Abraham DePeyster
The Siege of Yorktown or Battle of Yorktown in 1781 was a decisive victory by combined assault of American forces led by Major General George Washington and French forces led by General Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis. It proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War, as the surrender of Cornwallis’s army prompted the British government eventually to negotiate an end to the conflict. In 1780, 5,500 French soldiers landed in Rhode Island to try to help their American allies.
The two armies met North of New York City in 1781. The French Commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, convinced the American Commander, George Washington, that an attack on New York City would be hard pressed to succeed and it would be easier for the French Fleet under the command of the Comte de Grasse to assist in the attack further south. Thus, they agreed to attack Lord Cornwallis and his smaller army of 9,000 men stationed in the port town of Yorktown, Virginia. In the beginning of September, de Grasse defeated a British fleet led by Admiral Hood that came to relieve Cornwallis at the Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result of this victory, de Grasse blocked any escape by sea for Cornwallis.
Washington dispatched the French general Marquis de Lafayette to contain Cornwallis in Yorktown until he arrived, and Lafayette did so. By late September the army and naval forces surrounded Cornwallis by land and sea. With the British defense weakened, Washington, on October 14, 1781, sent two columns to attack the last major remaining British outer defenses. With these defenses gone, the allies were able to finish their 2nd parallel. With the Americans’ artillery closer and more intense than ever, the British situation began to deteriorate rapidly and Cornwallis asked for capitulation terms on the 17th. After two days of negotiation, the surrender ceremony took place on the 19th, with Cornwallis being absent since he claimed to be ill. With the capture of over 8,000 British soldiers, negotiations between the United States and Great Britain began, resulting in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Major Historical Figures: George Washington, Comte de Rochambeau, Comte de Grasse, Charles Cornwallis, Charles O’Hara