What was the American Revolution?

A Brief History of the Revolutionary War

The Build-up to Rebellion

In 1775, the eastern half of today’s United States was controlled by England, officially called “Great Britain” for the island England is on. That island is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean north of mainland Europe, shared by Scotland and Wales, which also were and are part of Great Britain. The future U.S. was divided into 15 colonies or “provinces” from modern Maine—then part of Massachusetts—down through Florida. Three, including North Carolina, stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Along with the Canadian provinces, the two that made up Florida did not join in the Revolution.

Map of the colonies with population densities
Credit: History Department, United States Military Academy / Public domain

In 1765 the legislative body of Britain, called “Parliament,” and its King George III tried to tax American colonists directly for the first time. They put taxes on paper goods, tea, people imported to become slaves, and more. This was largely to pay for the Seven Years’ War of the 1750s and ’60s, which started in the colonies and was known as the French and Indian War here (Spain was another foe). Prior to that, though, colonists only paid taxes to their provincial governments, which in turn sent part to Parliament. Colonists were not allowed to elect members of Parliament, leading to the rebel slogan, “No taxation without representation.”

Other issues that arose between England and European-Americans included:

  • Britain insisting on the colonies importing and exporting all goods through Britain or its monopolies, and some American merchants flouting those rules.
  • Trials for tax-related crimes being moved to naval courts, meaning the accused would not have juries of their peers.
  • In N.C., the provincial legislature wanting to put liens on land owned by absentee English landowners, but not being allowed to by Parliament.
  • Some Americans wanting to move onto Native American lands in violation of treaties the King had signed.
  • Britain moving toward the abolition of slavery, which American plantation owners and merchants involved in the slave trade wanted to expand.

The last two points increased colonial calls for British protection against Native raids and slave revolts, yet they didn’t want to pay for that protection either through the provinces as before, or directly to Parliament. As in most disputes, both sides bear some fault for the problems.

The Colonists Organize

Various groups formed to express opposition to British policies, the most famous being the “Sons of Liberty.” A Sons chapter formed in Wilmington in 1765. The original Boston chapter protested a tax on imported tea by dumping a bunch of it into Boston Harbor, an action that became known as the “Boston Tea Party.” Parliament responded with the punitive “Coercive Acts of 1774” (called the “Intolerable Acts” here). Among other actions, these forced Americans to house British officers in their homes and blockaded Boston Harbor until Boston reimbursed the owner of the tea.

This led to formal protests across the colonies. The provincial legislatures elected representatives to a “Continental Congress” in Philadelphia to negotiate a compromise with the British government. People like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington attended. Then citizens of Lexington and Concord, Mass., who were trained as “minutemen” to gather quickly for self-defense, fought British troops in April of 1775. Those troops had raided rebel military supplies. Next the congress paid for a “Continental Army” to try to force the British army from Boston. Congress put Washington in command.

On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress approved a Declaration of Independence that said the colonies were now “states”—13 new, separate countries, free of England. Britain disagreed and sent more troops to put down what it considered to be a rebellion.

Early Years of the War

Painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze (Public domain)

Most of what is now called the “American Revolution,” “Revolutionary War,” or “War of Independence” took place in the north for the first four years. You may have heard stories of Bunker Hill (Mass.), Valley Forge (Penn.), and Washington crossing the Delaware River to win the Battle of Trenton (N.J.). The popular musical “Hamilton” includes this period. With the help of France and Spain, who recognized American independence and became allies, by 1780 the war was a stalemate. The British had been kicked out of Boston and were really only in control of New York City and its vicinity, but the Continentals could not budge them. The British decided to try to recapture the southern colonies, and sent an army under Lord Charles Cornwallis to attack Charleston again—a 1776 attempt had failed. Cornwallis succeeded, gained control of South Carolina and Georgia, and then turned his attention to North Carolina (see last section).

Victory Achieved

“Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” by John Trumbull (Public domain)

Cornwallis withdrew to Wilmington at the end of the N.C. campaign in 1781, and moved from there to Virginia, ending up in Yorktown on the Chesapeake Bay. His army was surprised by Washington’s, which had come down from New York, joined by troops and ships from France. After a siege, Cornwallis was forced to surrender. Meanwhile, the Continental Army that had fought here regained control of the two states to the south, bottling up the British in Charleston. Soon after, the remaining British forces were recalled to England. The new “United States” were recognized as independent by Britain through the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783. (“Were” is the correct word; the U.S. was not referred to as a single nation using “was” until after the Civil War of the 1860s.)

For a more detailed history, see this site’s Timeline, which includes all of the significant events in and outside of North Carolina.

The Revolution in North Carolina

By 1776 North Carolina was the fourth most populous province, with 250,000 people, the majority living west of the Coastal Plain in rural settings.[1] Several areas of this state wrote political resolutions against the British prior to the war. The North Carolina Provincial Congress, meeting in Halifax, made N.C. the first American colony to formally declare support for independence. That was three months before the Continental Congress made it official.

North Carolina sent two brigades totaling around 3,000 men to the Continental Army’s northern campaigns. Washington ordered them to help defend South Carolina in December 1779, and many were captured along with 1,000 N.C. part-time soldiers called “militia” when Cornwallis conquered Charleston in May 1780. In August another 500 militia and some Continentals were captured in the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden (S.C.), including the state militia commander.

During the war, there were seven significant land campaigns here whose locations you can visit using this website:

  • The American Revolution was also a civil war, like the Civil War of 80 years later, but between supporters of the King (“Loyalists” or “Tories”) and backers of independence (“Patriots” or “Whigs”). Each side gathered citizens militias that won bold and dramatic victories throughout the war, but also committed savage atrocities against fellow North Carolinians.
  • Loyalists and British soldiers tried but failed to regain control of the Cape Fear area (around Wilmington) from American rebels in 1775-6.
  • Militia armies raided Cherokee villages in the mountains in 1776 due to attacks by Cherokees on colonists taking their lands (also wrongly thinking the Cherokees had allied with the British).
  • Cornwallis’ army invaded the Charlotte area in Fall of 1780 to resupply, only to run into a “hornet’s nest” of resistance.
  • A British and Loyalist army commanded by British Maj. Patrick Ferguson invaded the mountains farther west at the same time, and Ferguson angered settlers there by threatening them. Militia we now call the “Overmountain Men” chased Ferguson across the S.C. border and destroyed his force.
  • Cornwallis returned in 1781 for a dramatic chase of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army through the state to Virginia, now called the “Race to the Dan.” The armies finally had a climactic battle in today’s Greensboro, which the British technically “won,” but at a heavy cost.
  • After recovering in Wilmington, which another British force occupied for most of 1781, Cornwallis marched out of the state to Virginia and his eventual surrender at Yorktown.

This site takes you to every location in the state where you can still stand in the footsteps of the humans of all descriptions who struggled over a nation’s future. See “About This Site” to learn how it is organized or “Finding Locations” to start your adventure.

[1] Dunkerly, Robert M., Redcoats on the Cape Fear: The Revolutionary War in Southeastern North Carolina, Revised (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012).