Myths of the American Revolution- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
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Britain's leaders made a miscalculation when they assumed that resistance from the colonies, as the Earl of Dartmouth predicted, could not be "very formidable." (Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)

Myths of the American Revolution

A noted historian debunks the conventional wisdom about America's War of Independence

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(Continued from page 3)

Some Americans emerged from the war convinced that the militia had been largely ineffective. No one did more to sully its reputation than General Washington, who insisted that a decision to “place any dependence on Militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff.”

Militiamen were older, on average, than the Continental soldiers and received only perfunctory training; few had experienced combat. Washington complained that militiamen had failed to exhibit “a brave & manly opposition” in the battles of 1776 on Long Island and in Manhattan. At Camden, South Carolina, in August 1780, militiamen panicked in the face of advancing redcoats. Throwing down their weapons and running for safety, they were responsible for one of the worst defeats of the war.

Yet in 1775, militiamen had fought with surpassing bravery along the Concord Road and at Bunker Hill. Nearly 40 percent of soldiers serving under Washington in his crucial Christmas night victory at Trenton in 1776 were militiamen. In New York state, half the American force in the vital Saratoga campaign of 1777 consisted of militiamen. They also contributed substantially to American victories at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in 1780 and Cowpens, South Carolina, the following year. In March 1781, Gen. Nathanael Greene adroitly deployed his militiamen in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (fought near present-day Greensboro, North Carolina). In that engagement, he inflicted such devastating losses on the British that they gave up the fight for North Carolina.

The militia had its shortcomings, to be sure, but America could not have won the war without it. As a British general, Earl Cornwallis, wryly put it in a letter in 1781, “I will not say much in praise of the militia, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them...proves but too fatally they are not wholly contemptible.”

V. Saratoga Was The War’s Turning Point

On October 17, 1777, British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered 5,895 men to American forces outside Saratoga, New York. Those losses, combined with the 1,300 men killed, wounded and captured during the preceding five months of Burgoyne’s campaign to reach Albany in upstate New York, amounted to nearly one-quarter of those serving under the British flag in America in 1777.

The defeat persuaded France to form a military alliance with the United States. Previously, the French, even though they believed that London would be fatally weakened by the loss of its American colonies, had not wished to take a chance on backing the new American nation. General Washington, who rarely made optimistic pronouncements, exulted that France’s entry into the war in February 1778 had introduced “a most happy tone to all our affairs,” as it “must put the Independency of America out of all manner of dispute.”

But Saratoga was not the turning point of the war. Protracted conflicts—the Revolutionary War was America’s longest military engagement until Vietnam nearly 200 years later—are seldom defined by a single decisive event. In addition to Saratoga, four other key moments can be identified. The first was the combined effect of victories in the fighting along the Concord Road on April 19, 1775, and at Bunker Hill near Boston two months later, on June 17. Many colonists had shared Lord North’s belief that American citizen-soldiers could not stand up to British regulars. But in those two engagements, fought in the first 60 days of the war, American soldiers—all militiamen—inflicted huge casualties. The British lost nearly 1,500 men in those encounters, three times the American toll. Without the psychological benefits of those battles, it is debatable whether a viable Continental Army could have been raised in that first year of war or whether public morale would have withstood the terrible defeats of 1776.

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