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American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga

The War Spreads

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American Revolution: New York, Philadelphia, & Saratoga

Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

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The War Shifts to New York

Having captured Boston in March 1776, General George Washington began shifting his army south to block an anticipated British move against New York City. Arriving, he divided his army between Long Island and Manhattan and awaited British General William Howe's next move. In early June, the first British transports began appearing in lower New York Harbor and Howe established camps on Staten Island. Over the next several weeks Howe's army grew to over 32,000 men. His brother, Vice Admiral Richard Howe commanded the Royal Navy's forces in the area and stood by to provide naval support.

The Second Continental Congress & Independence

While the British amassed strength near New York, the Second Continental Congress continued to meet in Philadelphia. Convening in May 1775, the group contained representatives from all thirteen American colonies. In final effort to reach an understanding with King George III, the Congress drafted the Olive Branch Petition on July 5, 1775, which asked the British government to address their grievances in order to avoid further bloodshed. Arriving in England, the petition was discarded by the king who was angered by the language used in confiscated letters written by American radicals such as John Adams.

The failure of the Olive Branch Petition gave strength to those elements in Congress that wished to press for full independence. As the war continued, Congress began to assume the role of a national government and worked to make treaties, supply the army, and build a navy. Since it lacked the ability to tax, Congress was forced to rely on the governments of the individual colonies to provide the needed money and goods. In early 1776, the pro-independence faction began to assert more influence and pressured colonial governments to authorize reluctant delegations to vote for independence. After extended debate, Congress passed a resolution for independence on July 2, 1776. This was followed by the approval of the Declaration of Independence two days later.

The Fall of New York

In New York, Washington, who lacked naval forces, remained concerned that Howe could outflank him by sea anywhere in the New York area. Despite this, he felt compelled to defend the city due to its political importance. On August 22, Howe moved around 15,000 men across to Gravesend Bay on Long Island. Coming ashore, they probed the American defenses along the Heights of Guan. Finding an opening at Jamaica Pass, the British moved through the heights on the night of August 26/27 and struck American forces the next day. Caught by surprise, American troops under Major General Israel Putnam were defeated in the resulting Battle of Long Island. Falling back to a fortified position on Brooklyn Heights, they were reinforced and joined by Washington.

Though aware that Howe could cut him off from Manhattan, Washington was initially reluctant to abandon Long Island. Approaching Brooklyn Heights, Howe turned cautious and ordered his men to begin siege operations. Realizing the dangerous nature of his situation, Washington left the position on the night of August 29/30 and succeeded in moving his men back to Manhattan. On September 15, Howe landed on Lower Manhattan with 12,000 men and at Kip's Bay with 4,000. This forced Washington to abandon the city and assume a position to the north at Harlem Heights. The next day his men won their first victory of the campaign in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

With Washington in a strong fortified postion, Howe elected to move by water with part of his command to Throg's Neck and then on to Pell's Point. With Howe operating to the east, Washington was forced to abandon his position on northern Manhattan for fear of being cut off. Leaving strong garrisons at Fort Washington on Manhattan and Fort Lee in New Jersey, Washington withdrew to a strong defensive position at White Plains. On October 28, Howe assaulted part of Washington's line at the Battle of White Plains. Driving the Americans off of a key hill, Howe was able to compel Washington to retreat again.

Rather than pursue the fleeing Americans, Howe turned south to consolidate his hold on the New York City area. Assaulting Fort Washington, he captured the fortification and its 2,800-man garrison on November 16. While Washington was criticized for attempting to hold the post, he did so on Congress' orders. Major General Nathanael Greene, commanding at Fort Lee, was able to escape with his men before being attacked by Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis.

The Battles of Trenton & Princeton

Having taken Fort Lee, Cornwallis was ordered to pursue Washington's army across New Jersey. As they retreated, Washington faced a crisis as his battered army began to disintegrate through desertions and expiring enlistments. Crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania in early December, he made camp and attempted to reinvigorate his shrinking army. Reduced to around 2,400 men, the Continental Army was poorly supplied and ill-equipped for winter with many of the men still in summer uniforms or lacking shoes. As in the past, Howe displayed a lack of killer instinct and ordered his men into winter quarters on December 14, with many strung out in a series of outposts from New York to Trenton.

Believing an audacious act was needed to restore the public's confidence, Washington planned a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton for December 26. Crossing the ice-filled Delaware on Christmas night, his men struck the following morning and succeeded in defeating and capturing the garrison. Evading Cornwallis who had been sent to catch him, Washington's army won a second victory at Princeton on January 3, but lost Brigadier General Hugh Mercer who was mortally wounded. Having achieved two unlikely victories, Washington moved his army to Morristown, NJ and entered winter quarters.

Previous: Opening Campaigns | American Revolution 101 | Next: The War Moves South

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