Six Greatest Battles of the American Revolutionary War

The American Revolutionary War was undoubtedly one of the most significant events of the 18th century. The war led to American Independence and a new State on the world stage.

Nov 1, 2021By Igor Radulovic, MA History Education, BA Art History
greatest battles american revolution war princeton independence
Image composed of the Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, via Yale Art Gallery; with The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777, by John Trumbull, via Battlefields.org

 

The so-called American Revolutionary War created the foundations of the United States after the abandonment of colonial dependence on the United Kingdom. It is an event that took place in the 18th century and marked world history. The declaration of Independence and the creation of a new state paved the way for the establishment of a new order at an international level. Many great battles were fought across the continent during the war. Here are the six greatest.

 

1. The Battle of Bunker Hill: The First Major Battle of the Revolutionary War

battle of bunker hill american revolutionary war
Battle of Bunker Hill, by Edward Percy Moran, 1909, via Britannica

 

On June 17, 1775, the first great battle of the Revolutionary War began — the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British commander, Thomas Gage, planned to occupy Dorchester Heights, to strengthen his defense. The colonists found out about this plan and around 1,600 of them, under the command of Colonel Israel Putnam, John Stark, and William Prescott were organized into several units. Their goal was to capture Bunker Hill, the highest point of Dorchester Heights.

 

American troops built defensive walls overnight, which were supposed to defend them from cannon attacks. The British were surprised to see, on June 17th, what the colonists had managed to build overnight. Their cannon attack proved to be insufficiently effective and only one colonist was killed.

 

When Gage ordered British troops, led by William Howe, to disembark on the Boston Peninsula, there was a bloody clash. The British eventually managed to squeeze out the colonial forces, but at the cost of great losses. It is estimated that about 140 colonists were killed in the battle, 271 wounded and 30 captured. The British lost as many as 226 soldiers, while 828 were wounded. The battle of Bunker Hill is therefore remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in the entire American Revolutionary War.

 

2. Battle of Trenton: A Surprise Attack 

leutze washington crossing the delawere
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, via the MET Museum

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Although American Independence was proclaimed on July 4, 1776, after several defeats in the Revolutionary War, George Washington convened a War Council at Lord Stirling‘s headquarters on December 22, 1776. He considered a plan to attack Trenton. Washington’s agents intercepted a letter stating that the British were waiting for the Delaware to freeze, to then launch an attack on Philadelphia. Therefore, Washington and his generals devised a plan to attack Trenton on December 26.

 

The plan was to attack the British-hired German troops, the Hessians, via the Delaware, in three places. About 1,000 Pennsylvania militiamen and some 500 Rhode Island veterans, led by Generals John Cadwalader and Joseph Reed, were to cross the river and advance toward Trenton. A second, smaller group of 700 men, led by General James Ewing, was to attack Trenton directly, and a third, the largest force of about 2,400 men, led by Washington, Greene, Sullivan, and Stirling, was to cross the Delaware nine miles upstream from Trenton. According to spy data, the enemy force at Trenton numbered between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

 

Despite hoping to attack before dawn, Washington’s attack had to start in broad daylight. The attack began at around 8 o’clock in the morning. The whole fight lasted only about 45 minutes. On the Hessian side, there were 22 dead, 83 wounded, and 918 captured officers and soldiers, while American losses were minimal — just five wounded soldiers, and two men that died of the cold while crossing the Delaware. This was the greatest maneuver of Washington’s army in the whole Revolutionary war.

 

3. The Battle of Princeton: Beating Back the British

death general mercer american independence
The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777, by John Trumbull, 1832, via Battlefields.org

 

Washington was not satisfied with his victory so he set out on a night march to suppress British forces at Princeton. He decided to divide his army in an almost identical way to his attack on Trenton. General Nathanael Greene controlled the left flank, while General Sullivan was in charge of the main body of the army. Part of the army, led by Sullivan with his 5,000, attacked the south and east.

 

During this time, two British regiments moved along the King’s Road to Trenton. As soon as the first regiment crossed the bridge at Stony Brook, General Hugh Mercer and his detachment launched an attack. The British regrouped and then opened fire, driving the Americans to higher ground with their bayonets — a weapon Mercer’s men did not have. In addition, British cannons forced part of Washington’s army to withdraw, so Lord Cornwallis was convinced of its success. However, the fortunes of the war turned.

 

Washington’s plan succeeded, so the British forces were defeated and forced to withdraw to New Brunswick. Altogether 28 British soldiers were killed, while 58 were wounded and 323 captured. On the other side, 23 people were killed and 20 were injured. Washington set off to his headquarters in Morristown, where he prepared further plans.

 

The Battle of Princeton helped reaffirm the victory at Trenton, and the belief that victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War was not impossible.

 

4. The Battle of Germantown: A Dark Hour For American Independence

battle of germantown american revolutionary war
Battle of Germantown, by Xavier della Gatta,1782, via the Museum of the American Revolution

 

On September 26th, 1777, General Howe’s troops entered Philadelphia, the seat of the US government. Howe’s arrival in Philadelphia was followed in early October by the departure of his brother, Lord Howe to Delaware. This division of the British army hinted to Washington that he should carry out his plans. He wanted to attack his opponents suddenly and thus return the capital to American hands.

 

Thus, on the night of October 3rd, he attacked Howe’s troops near the village of Germantown. The battle began when a scout from Sullivan’s unit attacked a British outpost on Mont Erie. Yet the British outpost retaliated, thus alerting the rest of the British army. Sullivan’s division somehow managed to push the British outpost back to Germantown.

 

British Colonel Musgrave ordered his soldiers to fortify themselves in a nearby building. The Americans attacked them, but a much larger number of British soldiers repulsed the attack. Washington convened a war council, at which Henry Knox suggested that he destroy Colonel Musgrave’s garrison at all costs. Washington accepted Knox’s advice. However, the thick walls of the building withstood the bombardment. Americans who entered the building were stabbed with bayonets.

 

The losses to Washington’s Army were enormous. As many as 152 died, 521 wounded, and 438 captured soldiers, while the British had a total of 70 dead and 450 wounded soldiers. This was one of the hardest blows for Washington’s army in the Revolutionary war.

 

5. The Battles of Saratoga: The Americans’ Greatest Victory

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The Surrender of General Burgoyne, by John Trumbull, 1826, via AOC.gov

 

Probably no one expected that just a few days after the defeat at Germantown, the Americans would achieve the greatest victory in the entire Revolutionary War. American Independence proclaimed at Philadelphia was never closer. The decisive conflict took place on October 7th, near the Saratoga River. General John Burgoyne, whose forces numbered only 1,500 soldiers, decided to oppose the American army, led by General Horatio Gates, which was much bigger this time.

 

General Fraser led the attack with around 500 soldiers. The rest of the corps waited in the camp, hoping Fraser would succeed in his idea. However, Fraser’s attack was noticed by Daniel Morgan. With his 300 men, he attacked him from the right side, inflicting heavy losses. General Gates, realizing that his forces were much more numerous, ordered a counterattack. The Americans pushed back the enemy, but a decisive attack followed when Benedict Arnold came to the battlefield. Arnold did not wait for orders, but voluntarily attacked and broke the opponent’s lines.

 

The British side suffered as many as 176 dead, 200 wounded and 200 captured soldiers in this battle, while the Americans had 50 dead and 150 wounded soldiers. As for Gates, this battle was the culmination of his military career. For General Burgoyne, this was certainly the most humiliating moment.

 

6. The Battle of Yorktown: The Last Major Battle of the American Revolutionary War

surrender lord cornwallis american revolutionary war
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, by John Trumbull, 1826, via AOC.org

 

War operations resumed in May 1780. An English army under the command of Cornwallis marched south from New York and took control of all of South Carolina. Bloody guerrilla war broke out there, which by the end of that year had crushed the British in two cities: Charleston and Savannah. In the meantime, the French Corps under the command of Rochambeau landed on Rhode Island, but it was blocked here by the troops of the English General Clinton. Washington’s army, exhausted by severe financial scarcity, was unable to take action and break this blockade. That is why Rochambeau sent urgent messages to Paris, asking for financial help for the Americans.

 

Washington revived the army in a short time. Seeing what was happening, Clinton separated 7,000 soldiers from his army and sent them to help Cornwallis in South Carolina. The long march of American-French troops succeeded. Unhindered by Clinton, they reached Yorktown in October and surrounded it with 16,000 soldiers. At the same time, Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet blocked the city from the sea. Cornwallis was lost. Yorktown surrendered on October 19, 1781.

 

This great battle decided the outcome of the Revolutionary War and American Independence, not so much militarily as politically. The decision to stop the fight came in a matter of days.



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By Igor RadulovicMA History Education, BA Art HistoryIgor is a historian and a history teacher from Podgorica, Montenegro. His main focus are contemporary history and controversial historical topics. He still likes researching different periods, spanning from ancient to modern history.