Last Tuesday, we celebrated America’s 241st Independence Day. It was first declared on July 4, 1776 , nearly 15 months after American patriots battered British soldiers at the Battle of Lexington, inflicting 273 casualties on them. However, ultimate freedom would require many more victories in a long, bloody war against great odds.
Fortunately, Congress had already chosen Gen. George Washington to command the fledgling Continental Army. He had to create a Continental Army, equip, train, supply, lead, and sustain it against Great Britain’s military might. From 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 on were few and far between, with disastrous defeats in and around New York in the summer and fall of 1776. Meanwhile, both his small army and the militia that reinforced it were “melting away” thanks to short-term enlistments, set to expire Dec. 31, 1776.
With criticism of his generalship mounting, Washington rallied his army and redeemed his reputation. He assembled a 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 4 dead and 4 wounded.
Flush from 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 there. It was another surprise blow. Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton offset the worst effects of his earlier defeats. Moreover, they enhanced his credibility 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. Johnny Burgoyne’s forces were repeatedly outmaneuvered and outwitted by the Americans under Gen. Horatio Gates. Burgoyne surrendered 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. It also 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 American-French task force against British Gen. Charles Cornwallis and his army. 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.
Washington’s stunning victory at Yorktown was Great Britain’s worst defeat and the de facto end of the American Revolutionary War.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at email@example.com.