On 3 September 1783, the Peace of Paris was signed and the American War for Independence officially ended. The following excerpt from John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence recounts the war’s final moments, when Washington bid farewell to his troops.
The war was truly over. It had lasted well over eight years, 104 blood-drenched months to be exact. As is often the habit of wars, it had gone on far longer than its architects of either side had foreseen in 1775. More than 100,000 American men had borne arms in the Continental army. Countless thousands more had seen active service in militia units, some for only a few days, some for a few weeks, some repeatedly, if their outﬁt was called to duty time and again.
The war exacted a ghastly toll. The estimate accepted by most scholars is that 25,000 American soldiers perished, although nearly all historians regard that ﬁgure as too low. Not only were the casualty ﬁgures reported by American leaders, like those set forth by British generals, almost always inaccurately low, but one is left to guess the fate of the 9,871 men—once again, likely a ﬁgure that is wanting—who were listed as wounded or missing in action. No one can know with precision the number of militiamen who were lost in the war, as record keeping in militia units was neither as good as that in the Continental army nor as likely to survive. While something of a handle may be had on the number of soldiers that died in battle, or of camp disease, or while in captivity, the totals for those who died from other causes can only be a matter of conjecture. In all wars, things happen. In this war, men were struck by lightning or hit by falling trees in storms. Men were crushed beneath heavy wagons and ﬁeld pieces that overturned. Men accidentally shot themselves and their comrades. Men were killed in falls from horses and drowned while crossing rivers. Sailors fell from the rigging and slipped overboard. As in every war, some soldiers and sailors committed suicide. If it is assumed that 30,000 Americans died while bearing arms—and that is a very conservative estimate—then about one man in sixteen of military age died during the Revolutionary War. In contrast, one man in ten of military age died in the Civil War and one American male in seventy-ﬁve in World War II. Of those who served in the Continental army, one in four died during the war. In the Civil War, one regular in ﬁve died and in World War II one in forty American servicemen perished.
Unlike subsequent wars when numerous soldiers came home with disabilities, relatively few impaired veterans lived in post-Revolutionary America. Those who were seriously wounded in the War of Independence seldom came home. They died, usually of shock, blood loss, or infection. Some survived, of course, and for the remainder of their lives coped with a partial, or total, loss of vision, a gimpy leg, a handless or footless extremity, or emotional scars that never healed.
It was not only soldiers that died or were wounded. Civilians perished from diseases that were spread unwittingly by soldiers and not a few on the homefront died violent deaths in the course of coastal raids, Indian attacks, partisan warfare, and siege operations. There is no way to know how many civilians died as a direct result of this war, but it was well into the thousands.
The British also paid a steep price in blood in this war, one that was proportionately equal to the losses among the American forces. The British sent about
42,000 men to North America, of which some 25 percent, or roughly 10,000 men, are believed to have died. About 7,500 Germans, from a total of some 29,000 sent to Canada and the United States, also died in this war in the North American theater. From a paucity of surviving records, casualties among the Loyalists who served with the British army have never been established. However, 21,000 men are believed to have served in those provincial units. The most complete surviving records are those for the New Jersey Volunteers, which suffered a 20 percent death toll. If its death toll, which was below that of regulars and Germans, is typical, some four thousand provincials who fought for Great Britain would have died of all causes. Thus, it seems likely that about 85,000 men served the British in North America in the course of this war, of which approximately 21,000 perished. As was true of American soldiers, the great majority—roughly 65 percent—died of diseases. A bit over 2 percent of men in the British army succumbed to disease annually, while somewhat over 3 percent of German soldiers died each year of disease. Up to eight thousand additional redcoats are believed to have died in the West Indies, and another two thousand may have died in transit to the Caribbean. Through 1780, the Royal Navy reported losses of 1,243 men killed in action and 18,541 to disease. Serious ﬁghting raged on the high seas for another two years, making it likely that well over 50,000 men who bore arms for Great Britain perished in this war.
The French army lost several hundred men during its nearly two years in the United States, mostly to disease, but the French navy suffered losses of nearly 20,000 men in battle, captivity, and from illnesses. Spanish losses pushed the total death toll among those who fought in this war to in excess of 100,000 men.
Washington was anxious to get home, it now having been more than two years since he had last seen Mount Vernon. It must at times have seemed that New York would not let him go. He remained for ten days after the British sailed away, looking after the ﬁnal business of his command, but mostly attending a seemingly endless cycle of dinners and ceremonies. At last, on December 4, he was ready to depart. Only one thing remained. At noon that day Washington hosted a dinner at Fraunces Tavern for the ofﬁcers. Not many were still with the army. Of seventy-three generals yet on the Continental army rolls, only four were present, and three of those were from New York or planned to live there. Not much should be made of the paltry turnout. Men had been going home since June. Like the enlisted men, the ofﬁcers were anxious to see their families and put their lives together for the long years that lay ahead. All who attended the dinner knew that the function was less for dining than for saying farewell, and it soon became an emotional meeting. At some level, each man knew that the great epoch of his life was ending. Each knew that he would never again savor the warm pleasures of camaraderie, the pulsating thrill of danger, the rare exhilaration of military victory that had come from serving the infant nation in its quest for independence. Each knew that he was leaving all this for an uncertain future. No man was more moved than Washington, who, if he had planned to give a speech, discarded the idea. He merely asked each man to come forward to say goodbye. With tears streaming down his face, he embraced every man, and they in turn clasped him. Henry Knox grabbed his commander in chief and kissed him.
When the last man had bidden him farewell, Washington, too moved to talk, hurried to the door and to his horse that awaited him on the street. He swung into the saddle and sped away for Virginia, and home.
Image credit: Washington resigning his commission at Annapolis, Dec. 23, 1783. Thomas Addis Emmet. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. His new book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, will be published in October. He is the author of many books, including Independence, The Ascent of George Washington, Almost a Miracle, Setting the World Ablaze, and A Leap in the Dark. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
George Washington called the American victory in the Revolutionary war “little short of a standing miracle.” In 1776, an overwhelming British army had defeated his poorly trained force, driven them out of New York City, and chased them across New Jersey. Washington then lost Philadelphia, and his men had barely survived the wretched winter at Valley Forge. In 1780, the British captured the major southern port at Charleston, imprisoning the American garrison there, and utterly defeated a second patriot army. Before that year was out, his long-suffering troops were on the verge of mutiny and one of his senior generals had gone over to the enemy.
A year later he had effectively won the war. How was it possible? Of the many factors that influenced the war’s outcome, here are the ones that were among the most decisive.
The British should have won because . . .
. . . they had a professional military establishment. Although we often think of the redcoats as hardened veterans, most were raw recruits. But the British military establishment was well organized and formidable. They enjoyed a very seasoned officer corps, many of their top generals having joined the ranks as boys and seen action in wars with the French. They were well versed in military theory and how to apply it. Just as important, the British had a robust governmental bureaucracy devoted to war. Various ministries, boards and departments were experienced in supply, armaments, transportation, accounting, and the other logistical duties that are the foundation of any military effort. The Americans went to war with amateur officer and untrained troops; and they lacked the organization needed to supply and maintain an army in the field.
. . . they had naval superiority. Even more than their crack army, the British navy gave the nation a crucial advantage in a war against Americans, who were concentrated in a string of coastal settlements. Almost all of America’s major cities, from Boston to New York to Charleston, were vulnerable from the sea. The British could move troops, guns and supplies at will; the patriots were forced to trudge along notoriously bad roads.
. . . they had a fifth column. The colonists’ task would have been hard enough if they had been united. But many colonials were determined to stay loyal to the king, and a good portion of them were willing to take up arms against their more radical countrymen. When the British captured a city like New York or Philadelphia, they were welcomed as liberators by much of the population. Tory spies contributed significantly to British intelligence. Much of the British strategy, from the beginning of the war until the end, was aimed at encouraging and supporting uprisings of armed loyalists who would sweep the deluded patriots aside and restore order in the colonies.
The Americans did win because . . .they had an organized militia. Because of the persistent myth that it was raw American citizen-soldiers who defeated the arrogant British, historians have had to emphasize that militia units, the true citizen-soldiers, did not form the backbone of the American military. It was the Continental Army that won battles, but local militiamen performed two immensely valuable services: they secured the home-front, responding quickly to any British incursion, and they reinforced the Continentals during crucial battles. Lightly trained militiamen often proved unreliable fighters, but at critical moments, from Bunker Hill to Kings Mountain, they showed remarkable courage and prevailed.
. . . they won the support of France. The French declaration of war on Britain in 1778 was tremendously heartening for the patriots. France had the wealth, the guns, the troops and the ships. At first the alliance failed to bear fruit. Joint operations at Newport, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia, disappointed both sides. Yet French muskets, uniforms, gunpowder and money helped sustain the Continental Army. French soldiers and sailors enabled Washington to trap and defeat British General Cornwallis at Yorktown. The threat from French forces required Britain to transfer resources to the West Indies and even to worry about a French invasion of their sceptered isle. It was from this wider war that the American patriots to emerge victorious.
. . . they persevered. Americans won their independence because they continued to fight. Again and again during the war, they reached points when they could have thrown in the towel. At times, the Continental Army seemed only weeks or days from disbanding. In spite of defeat after defeat, in spite of no pay, rampant disease and inadequate supplies, they kept at it. George Washington was no military genius. But his faith in the cause, his determination to fight, and the mutual love he came to share with his officers and men carried him through many dark nights. “He never has more resources,” a Frenchman observed, “than when he seems to have no more.” Inspired by leaders like Nathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne and Henry Knox, thousands of men gave up their youth, their health, and sometimes their lives, for independence. Against such perseverance, it was the British who finally had to admit defeat.
The calculus of warfare is subtle and complex, depending as it does on human ingenuity and audacity, on pure luck, and on a thousand unknowns. We know history has no direction. Yet in studying history, we inevitably see trends that seem to have a purpose. With the spread of Enlightenment ideas, the late 1700s was a time when it was possible for the age-old concepts of monarchy and aristocracy to crack. In the American Revolution they did crack, allowing a new idea of republican government to blossom in North America. James Russell Lowell later wrote of the British soldiers:
“They came three thousand miles and died,
To keep the past upon its throne.”
In the American Revolution, the past lost, the future won.
Jack Kelly is a good journalist and historian, but doesn’t mention Him to whom the real credit goes for winning the Revolutionary War. You merely need to study history to recognize that a group of fledgling colonies defeating the world’s most powerful nation stemmed from a force greater than man. Where else in the world do we find a group of men together in one place at one time who possessed greater capacity and wisdom than the founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and others? But it was not to their own abilities that they gave the credit. They acknowledged Almighty God and were certain of the impossibility of their success without his help. Benjamin Franklin made an appeal for daily prayers in the Constitutional Convention. In that appeal he said, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? I believe without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the building of Babel.” (The Great Prologue, Mark E. Peterson)
JACK KELLY is a journalist, novelist, and historian. He has contributed to American Heritage, American Legacy, Invention & Technology, and other national periodicals, and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in Nonfiction Literature. He has appeared on The History Channel, been interviewed on National Public Radio, and conducted book signings across the country. He lives near Kingston in New York’s Hudson Valley, where much of the action of the Revolutionary War took place. His latest book is Band of Giants.
In this gripping chronicle of America’s struggle for independence, award-winning historian John Ferling transports readers to the grim realities of that war, capturing an eight-year conflict filled with heroism, suffering, cowardice, betrayal, and fierce dedication. As Ferling demonstrates, it was a war that America came much closer to losing than is now usually remembered. General George Washington put it best when he said that the American victory was “little short of a standing miracle.”
Almost a Miracle offers an illuminating portrait of America’s triumph, offering vivid descriptions of all the major engagements, from the first shots fired on Lexington Green to the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, revealing how these battles often hinged on intangibles such as leadership under fire, heroism, good fortune, blunders, tenacity, and surprise. Ferling paints sharp-eyed portraits of the key figures in the war, including General Washington and other American officers and civilian leaders. Some do not always measure up to their iconic reputations, including Washington himself. The book also examines the many faceless men who soldiered, often for years on end, braving untold dangers and enduring abounding miseries. The author explains why they served and sacrificed, and sees them as the forgotten heroes who won American independence.