American Independence declared on July 4,1776 would require winning a long, bloody war against great odds. Fortunately, Congress had already chosen George Washington to command the fledgling Continental Army. He described it as “a mixed multitude of people ... under very little discipline, order or government.”
Gen. Washington had to create a Continental Army, equip, train, supply, lead and sustain it against Great Britain’s military might. Relying on his military experience during the French and Indian War, he knew firsthand, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.”
Unfortunately, Washington’s successes early in the war were few and far between. He suffered disastrous defeats in and around New York in the summer and fall of 1776.
Meanwhile, both the army he had created and the militia that reinforced it were “melting away” thanks to short-term enlistments, set to expire on Dec. 31, 1776. Moreover, criticism of Washington’s generalship was mounting.
Washington was determined to re-focus his forces and redeem his reputation. He assembled a Continental force of some 2,400 men, took personal command of them, crossed the icy Delaware River on a cold and windy Christmas night, marched nearly 10 miles and struck the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, N.J., with a vengeance. Taken completely by surprise, they quickly surrendered. Forty of them were killed and over 900 were captured. American losses were only four dead and four wounded.
Buoyed by his victory at Trenton, Washington persuaded many of his men to stick with him for six more weeks. Then he launched a bold attack at Princeton, inflicting heavy casualties on two British regiments. It was another surprise blow. Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton not only offset the worst effects of his earlier defeats, they restored his prestige as a consummate commander to friend and foe alike.
The turning point in the Revolutionary War was the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777. In a series of fierce fights, British Gen. “Bungling” Johnny Burgoyne’s forces were repeatedly out-maneuvered and outwitted by the Americans under Gen. Horatio Gates. Burgoyne surrendered on Oct. 17. The Americans took nearly 6,000 prisoners and huge quantities of military materiel. News of the American victory at Saratoga brought gloom in London and glee in Paris. Moreover, it brought overt French military support that would prove pivotal in the climactic Battle of Yorktown.
The Battle of Yorktown in October, 1781 pitted Gen. Washington and his combined Franco-American forces against the forces of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis. After concentrating his forces, Washington began his siege of Yorktown on Oct. 6. He trapped Cornwallis there with no means of escape or reinforcement, thanks largely to the French Navy which controlled Chesapeake Bay. On Oct. 19, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army. Washington’s stunning victory at Yorktown was Great Britain’s most ignominious defeat-and the de facto end of the American Revolutionary War.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.