US History
US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > Observations

To the "Revolution," by which the war as well as the change of government is often designated, I have given considerable space because of its great importance in the world's history. It gave birth to the greatest of modern nations. It also ended a long and bloodless strife in England between two political parties, or opposing principles of government, and resulted in the restoration of Parliamentary rule as distinguished from that of the royal prerogative. During the war the belief was widespread that the success of the Americans would bring ruin to the British Empire and relegate it to a second place among the powers, but such a result did not follow. England, now in the hands of Parliament and not of the king, rose like a wounded giant and smote her enemies right and left. Admiral Rodney, the greatest of English seamen except Nelson and Blake,1 in a tremendous naval battle in the West Indies in 1782, destroyed the French fleet and made a prisoner of De Grasse; and before the end of the year the English won a great victory over the Spaniards at Gibraltar. England now became the mother of nations and rose to a greater height than ever before, reaching the acme of her power a generation later at Waterloo.

America was not greatly weakened by the Revolution. It is true that the fishing industry and the shipping business were temporarily destroyed, but in spite of this fact the country continued to prosper during the war, and gained three hundred thousand inhabitants.2 In fact, the war did not continue long in any one place. The wealth of the country lay chiefly in its farm products, and so extensive was the territory that the invading armies overran less than one tenth of it during the whole war. When a foreign army was quartered for a long season in any place, it was a benefit rather than a detriment to the community, as the farmers received better prices, and usually in specie, for their products. In short, the country was richer and stronger in resources at the end of the war than at its begining. Nevertheless, the patriot armies were often barefoot, but half clothed, and actually suffering for food. This arose wholly from a want of government. The country was laden with harvests and fruits, with shoes and clothing; but Congress was powerless, -- it could not supply the army, it had no power of taxation. In one way alone, the worst way of all, could Congress tax the people -- by issuing paper money;3 and this it did lavishly. This Continental money depreciated in the hands of the people until it became valueless.

A pound of sugar sold for $10, and a barrel of flour for $1500. To say that a thing was "not worth a continental" was to express the utmost contempt for its value. This inflation of the currency caused much annoyance in business, but the people deserved it for their tardy support of the war. Had Congress wielded true governmental powers, or had the people acted all through with the vigor displayed at Lexington, at Saratoga, and at King's Mountain, the war would have been short and the result never doubtful.

As to foreign aid, aside from the moral effect of the French alliance and the individual services of such men as Lafayette and Steuben, it amounted to little until the last campaign. Twice did the French make an honest effort -- at Newport and at Savannah -- to assist the Americans, but in each ease the result was failure. At Yorktown, however, the aid of the French was necessary to success. But for the fleet of De Grasse, Cornwallis would have escaped by sea; and but for the French land forces he might have broken through the encircling lines. For this service the Americans should never cease to be profoundly grateful to France.

Perhaps the greatest mistake made by the British was presuming too much on the strength of the loyalists. There were many, it is true, in northern New York and in the South, but in both sections the patriots outnumbered them, while in New England and Pennsylvania the Tory element was insignificant. Burgoyne seriously miscalculated in expecting the people of the Hudson Valley to rise up for the king, and the same mistake was made by Cornwallis in his hapless, final campaign in Virginia.

Among the British commanders we find no really great soldier. The ablest of them all was Cornwallis, a man of much vigor, honest, conscientious, and not without strategic ability. Had Cornwallis been made commander in chief from the beginning, the history of the war might have been different from what it is. Next to him stands Lord Rawdon; and both of these men afterward rose high in the councils of their nation, each becoming governor of India. Tarleton exhibited much dash and brilliancy, but he was wanting in the humane qualities that usually characterize modern warfare. Gage was incompetent, as British writers acknowledge. Howe was abler, but he was dilatory and never seemed to have heart in the work.4 Burgoyne and Clinton were men of considerable ability, and the most honorable instincts; but while the former in his single campaign had little opportunity to exhibit any great qualities, the latter was usually just too late in making any important movement. Long after the war was over Clinton and Cornwallis had a sharp controversy concerning the Virginia campaign, the sympathy of Parliament remaining chiefly with the latter.

Turning to the American side, we find in George Washington a great military commander. It is true that he actually won but few battles, but this fact will not affect his reputation when one considers the conditions. An army of regulars, of professional soldiers, is worth at least three times its number of untrained militia; and not only was Washington's army composed largely of militia, as against the British regulars, but it was also usually far inferior in numbers, and was badly equipped in comparison. We do not class Washington among the greatest warriors of history; he lacked the brilliant genius of a Hannibal, a Caesar or a Napoleon. He is especially remembered for his Fabian policy; and yet his operations at Trenton and Princeton, his well-planned attack at Germantown, so soon after the defeat at Brandywine, and his stealthy march upon Yorktown, -- all must be classed among the most brilliant military movements in the history of warfare. Other valiant leaders there were in the field and in the State, but any one of them could have been spared. Not so with Washington. Without him -- judging from a human standpoint -- the Revolution could not have succeeded.

Next to Washington stands Nathanael Greene. Singular it is that Greene never won a battle; but he always won the campaign, which was the vital thing after all. Lafayette made a name for himself in American history, and his fame will endure for many generations; but he never displayed, in this war or later in life, the qualities of a great military genius. A few of the commanders are famous for some single act -- Ethan Allen for the capture of Ticonderoga, Stark for Bennington, and Wayne for his capture of Stony Point; while others, equally deserving, are scarcely remembered by the masses. Among these are Schuyler, who was robbed of his laurels at Saratoga; Knox, whose name was redeemed by his being chosen to sit in the first Cabinet; Daniel Morgan, the hero of many battles and especially of the Cowpens; and Sullivan, who was a conspicuous figure in nearly every battle fought on northern soil.


   Washington's Farewell. -- On November 25, 1783, the British army under Sir Guy Carleton, who had succeeded Clinton, departed from New York, and the same day the American army entered the city. The day was celebrated for many years as Evacuation Day. Nine days after the entrance of the army Washington gathered his officers about him at Fraunce's Tavern and gave them an affectionate farewell. In deep emotion he raised a glass of water with trembling hand to his lips, drank to their health, and said: "With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you, and most devoutly wish your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." He then invited each to shake him by the hand, and as they did so he kissed each one on the forehead. From New York he went to Philadelphia and deposited with the comptroller an account of his expenses during the war (some $64,000), and then proceeded to Annapolis, where Congress was sitting. In the towns along the route great numbers of people gathered to do honor to the hero and to assure him of their undying devotion. In the statehouse at Annapolis, at noon on December 23, Washington appeared before Congress in special session for the purpose, returned his commission as commander of the army to General Mifflin, the president, and uttered a speech full of feeling and wisdom. Two days later, on Christmas, this "Cincinnatus of the West" was resting amid the rural scenes of his Mt. Vernon home.

   The Treaty and the Loyalists. -- The most serious immediate question before the American people after the conclusion of the treaty was what to do with the Tories or loyalists. In framing the treaty, England had insisted on favorable terms for them; but our commissioners, Franklin, Jay, and John Adams, were inexorable in their refusal. They agreed, however, that Congress recommend that the states deal mildly with the loyalists. Congress did this, but the states paid no heed to the request. Many of them fled the country at the close of the war, some to England, some to Canada, while others found refuge in Florida. Many were reduced to poverty by confiscation. Some in New Jersey were tarred and feathered, while numbers in the South were put to death. One man, named Love, who had been notorious for killing wounded patriots, was tried in Georgia and was acquitted but the people seized him as he walked out of the court room and hanged him to the nearest tree. A great many of the milder Tories were permitted to remain in the country, and they eventually became useful citizens. It is claimed that about 60,000 fled the country and made their homes in England or Canada. For those who had lost their property and left the country, Parliament appropriated a large sum of money, $16,000,000.


1Greene. [return]

2Rhode Island and Georgia alone lost in populaiion. See Channing's "United States of America," p. 105. [return]

3The various issues by Congress (all before the close of 1779) aggregated $242,000,000. Lossing's "Cyclopedia," Vol. II, p.321. [return]

4General Howe was accused by his political enemies of not trying to conquer the Americans because of his sympathy with them. To these accusations he made a sweeping denial. Mr. S. G. Fisher, in his "True History of the Revolution" (p. 296 sq.), makes a strong argument that Howe was not true to the British cause that his sailing to Halifax on leaving Boston, instead of going direct to the vicinity of New York; his leaving great stores and many cannon at Boston, when he could have destroyed them; his failure to capture the American army on Long Island; his loitering on Murray Hill and losing a great opportunity in New York; his sailing for the Chesapeake, when he should have cooperated with Burgoyne, even without instructions, -- abundantly prove this. The argument is strong, but as Howe was always known to be a man of the highest honor and probity, and as such a theory impeaches his character and makes him a traitor to his country while pretending to be its friend and defender, the theory is impossible to accept. And yet, as General Howe was a stanch whig, it can easily be believed that his campaigns were less vigorous than they would have been had he belonged to the opposite party.

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 313-317. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

© 2001-2012