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1775: The beginning of the War of Independence

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1775

    • February 9
    • Parliament declares a state of rebellion in the colonies.
      • In a joint address to the King, both Houses of Parliament declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and approved all necessary means-including force-to compel the colonists to obey the laws of the British government.
    • March 23
    • Patrick Henry delivers his famour “Liberty or Death” speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
      • Called "a forest-born Demosthenes," after the freedom-loving orator of ancient Greece, Virginian country boy Patrick Henry had acquired notoriety as a fiery, spellbindng speaker during the Stamp Act Crisis. On the occasion of this speech, the question before the convention was whether to arm the Virginia militia to fight the British. It is said that Henry stepped out into the aisle with his head bowed, holding out his arms as if he were shackled. His voice was low when he began to speak, but it gradually began to swell: "Our chains are forged... The war is actually begun... Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" Suddenly he threw back his head, stood straight and tall, and "broke" the imaginary chains. Every heart was stirred when his powerful voice rang out, "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
    • April 18
    • Paul Revere makes his famous ride to alert the minutemen that the British are coming
      • As the likelihood of war increased, the colonists began to realize that any armed conflict would be short-lived on their part without munitions. With this in mind, they began to stockpile cannonballs and gunpowder at strategic points throughout the colonies. One of these stores was at Concord, Massachusetts, a small town eighteen miles by road outside of Boston.

        On April 14, 1775, Thomas Gage, the military governor in Massachusetts, received a directive from the secretary of state authorizing him to use the forces under his command to "restore the vigour of Government" in the colony. This followed a debate in Parliament over how to respond to Congress' Declaration and Resolves. The day after Gage received Parliament's directive, some of Britain's finest troops stationed in Boston were relieved from their normal duties for special training. The news spread throughout the colony that something was afoot. Astute Patriot spies guessed that these troops were preparing to march on Concord. The only question was whether they would march out of Boston via the road down the narrow Boston Neck, or whether they take the shorter route across the Charles River.

        Paul Revere, a silversmith of Boston and a known Patriot, arranged for lanterns to be hung high in the steeple of the Old North Church in the city, signalling waiting couriers. One lantern meant that the British were marching by land, and two lanterns meant that they were coming "by sea," or across the river. Having made these provisions, Revere himself, at great personal risk, rowed out in a small boat into the middle of the Charles River. A horse stood ready for him on the opposite shore.

        Around 10:30 p.m., some seven hundred British troops under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith began to quietly fill boats waiting for them on the Charles River, and two lights flashed in the steeple of the Old North Church. The Patriots sprang into action. In Boston, Dr. Joseph Warren sent William Dawes out of the city by road. Dawes slipped past British sentries by pretending to be drunk, and began to alert the countryside. Paul Revere, too, was quickly astride his horse and shouting the news to homes along his way.

        The first objective of both of these men was not Concord, but nearby Lexington, where renowned Patriots John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying. Both men were wanted by the British. Having taken the shorter route, Revere was the first to arrive, and quickly roused Hancock and Adams, then waited for Dawes.

        Among the people stirred by Revere's shouting was Dr. Samuel Prescott, who was in Lexington visiting his fiancé. Prescott jointed the riders, and the trio headed for Concord, alerting the countryside. They were soon confronted on the road by British soldiers. Revere and Prescott were detained, but Prescott later managed to escape and ride on to Concord.
    • April 19
    • Open hostilities commence in the colonies at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts; the siege of Boston begins.
      • Early in the misty morning of April 19th, about 70 minutemen assembled on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a small town on the road from Boston to Concord. Captain John Parker was their leader, and today, a stone stands near the green, bearing his words of inspiration to his men: "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon. But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!"

        Soon the leading British troops came into view. Their commander, Major John Pitcairn, saw the small band, and ordered his much larger force into formation across the green. He ordered the rebels to disperse, but before any move could be made, a shot rang out. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call it, "the shot heard 'round the world." Both sides afterwards claimed that the other had fired first. The weight of evidence seems to suggest that a British soldier fired against orders. At any rate, when the smoke cleared, one British soldier and ten colonists were wounded, and eight Patriot farmers lay dead. Each of these deaths promised a year of war to come, until the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War in 1783.

        After the skirmish, the British column continued on toward its objective: the munitions stores at Concord. But most of these stores had been removed to safety by the district militia, thanks to the advance warning of Paul Revere, Billy Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott. The British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, posted outguards against an attack by the minutemen, while the rest of his troops searched the town. At the North Bridge, one of the British outposts met with a group of minutemen and was driven back into Concord.

        Frustrated and increasingly alarmed, the British began a retreat to Boston. The return march, however, began to resemble a rout. Roused by the shouts of the Patriot couriers, the entire countryside was hurrying to the scene of action. Colonists lined fences and hedgerows to snipe at the British column, which was soon in disarray. Indeed, the redcoats might never have survived the eighteen-mile march back to Boston if General Gage had not sent fresh troops out to meet them. As it was, British losses amounted to 273, while American suffered only 95 casualties.

        The news from Concord and Lexington spread all throughout the colonies, and New England militia poured into Massachusetts to bottle up the British in Boston. General Artemas Ward was appointed to command the motley band of undisciplined, unsupplied beseigers. In the first few days, Harvard University temporarily solved the problem of feeding the patriots by opening its food lockers to the troops.
    • May 10
    • The Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia.
      • Much had transpired between the First and Second Continental Congresses. It was three weeks after the events at Lexington and Concord, and New England militia was encamped around the British at Boston. Connecticut forces under the zealous Ethan Allen were even at that moment seizing control of Fort Ticonderoga, in present-day Vermont. Even Americans of moderate views had become convinced that the British ministry was conspiring against colonial liberties. The members of the Second Continental Congress were determined to answer force with force.

        It was an impressive assembly of men. The Virginian delegation was perhaps the most dashing, accorded the sort of hero worship today reserved for Hollywood stars and gifted athletes. When its seven members rode into town, they were greeted with a military parade. These men included George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and Patrick Henry. When Peyton Randolph was called back for urgent business in the Virginia House of Burgesses, his cousin Thomas Jefferson took his place in the Congress.

        Other eminent delegates included the Adams cousins, Sam and John, and John Hancock, from Massachusetts. Pennsylvania sent Benjamin Franklin, who arrived from England only five days prior to the Congress after having been dismissed from his post as Deputy Postmaster General for America.
    • June 15
    • George Washington is appointed the military leader of the Continental forces.
      • At the behest of the Massachusetts delegates, the Second Continental Congress voted to take over the militia forces around Boston. They also made provisions to raise six companies of riflemen to join the siege. The man they voted commander-in-chief of this Continental Army was not a New Englander, but a Virginian, universally esteemed for his martial skill and strength of character: George Washington.

        Even among the venerable men attending the Congress, Washington was distinguished. He was over six feet tall, big-boned and muscular, with an awe-inspiring demeanor and steely gray-blue eyes. Stories regarding his great physical strength circulated even among young boys in the colonies, and his courage during the French-Indian War was well-known. He wore his uniform to the Congress, and was deferentially addressed as "Colonel Washington."

        Some thought that John Hancock, who was serving as president of the Congress, would be nominated to lead the colonial troops. But when John Adams put forth the name of George Washington, the congress voted unanimously in his favor. Washington made only one condition before accepting the position: he would receive no salary.

        After his commissioning, Washington quickly departed for Boston to take charge of the raggedy troops there. He would not arrive in time, however, to lead them in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
    • June 17
    • The British are victorious at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but suffer heavy casualties.
      • Inside besieged Boston, British General Thomas Gage received reinforcements by ship, including three major generals who would greatly distinguish themselves during the course of the Revolutionary War: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. An evaluation of the surrounding topography led to the decision to seize Dorchester Heights, which offered the Patriots excellent artillery coverage of the city.
        Word of this plan reached the colonists, who determined to forestall the British by fortifying nearby Breed's Hill. The coming battle should more properly have been named after Breed's Hill. Although Bunker Hill was the taller of the two, Breed's Hill was closer to the city, and the colonists' decision was strategically the right one.

        When, on the morning of June 17th, a British warship in the harbor espied the redoubt being constructed by the colonists, it quickly announced its discovery to anyone within miles of the city. Awakened by the cannonfire, General Gage assigned General Howe the task of dislodging the patriots from those hills. The task should and could have been a simple one. Warships in the harbor were already shelling the colonists' position. Like Boston itself, both Breed's and Bunker Hills lay on a peninsula in the Charles River, and boats could easily have been used to move troops into a position to cut off the colonists' means of retreat. But General Howe ignored proper military tactics and opted for a frontal attack, perhaps out of disdain for the American troops. He also planned a secondary flanking maneuver, but this attack was repulsed before the main assault.

        Just before the battle, two men volunteered for service in the colonial troops. One was Seth Pomeroy, age 70, who carried the musket he had used in King George's War thirty years earlier. The other was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who had sent Billy Dawes, along with Paul Revere, to warn the Boston countryside that British troops were on the march. He had been appointed a major general by the Second Continental Congress, but had not yet received his commission. Both of these men refused command, and fought as private soldiers instead; Warren lost his life in the action.

        Under the rules of warfare of the time, shooting actually played a very small role in the effectiveness of an attack. Muskets were too unreliable, and took too long to load. It was standard to fire only one or two volleys, and then charge with affixed bayonets. When the British started up Breed's Hill, the American defenders hid behind their fortifications, and followed their orders not to shoot until "you see the whites of their eyes." Then, when the British were in close range, the colonists blasted them with a murderous volley. Stunned, the British fell back, but with characteristic courage, renewed the attack. The second assault also failed. General Clinton brought in reinforcements for a third try. The militia, their meager ammunition stores gone, were slowly forced off the hill, still fighting by using their muskets as clubs, but standing no chance against the bayonets of the British.

        The number of Americans involved in the Battle of Bunker Hill was around 3,200, but probably no more than 1,500 were engaged at any one time. There was little coordination between forces. They were not experienced backwoodsmen, as has often been claimed, but townsmen and farmers, unskilled in the use of guns. Despite these disadvantages, only about 440 casualties were suffered. On the British side, about 2,400 troops were engaged, and 1,500 of these became casualties.
    • July 5
    • The Continental Congress adopts the Olive Branch Petition.
      • Even as military steps were taken in response to the armed conflict in Massachusetts, some delegates retained a flicker of hope that the King might be the key to resolving the situation peacefully. John Dickinson from Delaware was one of these hopefuls, and it was he who drafted the Olive Branch Petition. This last-minute appeal professed the colonies' loyalty to the King and entreated him to intercede in the quarrel between the Americans and Parliament.

        No one held much hope for the Olive Branch Petition's success, however, and the very next day, the Congress seemed to shake itself out of the mood of wishful thinking when it passed the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms." This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and modified by John Dickinson, is where the true tenor of the Second Continental Congress is to be found. The Declaration comprehensively stated the Americans' cause against Great Britain and presented a justification for military resistance on the colonists' part, while specifically denying that the colonies desired independence.

        King George III, who was already assembling mercenary troops, declined to read the Olive Branch Petition, and his actions soon instilled the desire for independence in many colonists who had formerly been reticent.
    • August 23
    • King George III issues his
      • Only two days after the arrival of the Second Continental Congress' Olive Branch Petition and soon after hearing of the costly Battle of Bunker Hill, King George III formally declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion and made it treason for anyone in Britain to aid them. This effectively silenced any politicians in England who still held hopes of convincing the British ministry to make concessions to the colonies in order to bring about a peaceful reconciliation.

        Four months later King George III approved Parliament's American Prohibitory Act, forbidding all trade with the colonies and commanding the seizure of American ships on the high seas. As they watched British naval and military forces continue to build, Americans became convinced that the king, no less than Parliament, was aggressively seeking to destroy their liberties.
    • November 17
    • Royal Governor Dunmore of Virginia forms a regiment of former slaves to fight for the British by promising them freedom after their service.
      • From the earliest days of the struggle with Britain, Virginia was an outspoken defender of colonial liberties. Her governor, however, was stubbornly supportive of the crown. In April of 1775, Lord Dunsmore attempted to remove some stores of gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg, using a British ship. The citizens, alarmed that the governor intended to rob them of their means of defense, took up armed patrols to protect the munitions. Incensed at the challenge, Dunsmore threatened to enfranchise and arm the negroes in order to accomplish his purpose. He thought to intimidate the rebels, but his empty words proved a grave mistake.

        As word of the conflict spread throughout the colony, the governor was sufficiently alarmed to remove his family to a ship in the James River, and fortify his palace. Seeking public support for his accusations against the leaders of the unrest, including Patrick Henry, Dunsmore convened the general assembly. A committee appointed to investigate the affair found that the magazine in Williamsburg had been tampered with-much of its remaining gunpowder had been buried, and many of its guns were missing certain essential parts.

        The public grew resentful at these discoveries. Lord Dunsmore quietly withdrew to the man-of-war in the James River, and could not be induced to return to the business of government. When certain bills were prepared requiring his signature, the assembly pleaded with the governor to return and ajourn the session. Dunsmore balefully replied that instead of travelling to the assembly's usual place of deliberation, he would wait in expectation for the bills to be brought to his floating residence.

        The assembly balked at this breach of their rights, and after professing loyalty to Britain, adjourned the session themselves. Royal government in Virginia thenceforth ceased, and the assembly took steps to create some kind of government which would protect their liberties. The reckless Lord Dunsmore, meanwhile, established a marine force with which he terrorized the countryside, destroying plantations and conscripting prisoners into service. He issued a proclamation placing Virginia under martial law, calling for all able-bodied men to rally to the king's standard and promising freedom to indentured servants and slaves who fought on the loyalist side.

        Dunsmore's offer, however, no longer held much appeal. His failure to make good on his earlier threat, along with the growing strength of those opposed to him, made the negroes doubt his ability to protect them if they flocked to his side. This evidence of a lack of enthusiasm among slaves in America for the British cause came as a shock to the British ministry, which had reckoned upon eager participation from the slaves in the task of subduing the revolution, especially where negroes outnumbered whites.