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Resistance and Revolution, The American Revolution

Lord Charles Cornwallis, French alliance, battle of Yorktown, decisive battles, hostile territory

In 1776 the prospects for American victory seemed small. Britain had a population more than three times that of the colonies, and the British army was large, well–trained, and experienced. The Americans, on the other hand, had undisciplined militia and only the beginnings of a regular army or even a government. But Americans had powerful advantages that in the end were decisive. They fought on their own territory, and in order to win they did not have to defeat the British but only to convince the British that the colonists could not be defeated.

The British fought in a huge, hostile territory. They could occupy the cities and control the land on which their army stood, but they could not subdue the American colonists. Two decisive battles of the war—Saratoga and Yorktown—are cases in point. At Saratoga, New York, a British army descending on the Hudson Valley from Canada outran its supply lines, became tangled in the wilderness, and was surrounded by Americans. The Americans defeated a British detachment that was foraging for food near Bennington, Vermont, then attacked the main body of the British army at Saratoga. The British surrendered an army of about 5,800.

More important, the American victory at Saratoga convinced France that an alliance with the Americans would be a good gamble. The French provided loans, a few troops, and, most importantly, naval support for the Americans. The French alliance also turned the rebellion into a wider war in which the British had to contend not only with the colonials but also with a French navy in the Caribbean and on the American coast.

In the battle of Yorktown, the climactic campaign of the war, the vastness of America again defeated the British. In 1781 Lord Charles Cornwallis led an army through Virginia almost without opposition, then retreated to a peninsula at Yorktown. There he was besieged by George Washington’s army and held in check by the French navy. Unable to escape or to get help, Cornwallis surrendered an entire British army. His defeat effectively ended the war. In the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the British recognized the independence of the United States and relinquished its territory from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

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