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American Revolution

Vincennes to Yorktown

The warfare had meanwhile shifted from the quiescent North to other theaters. George Rogers Clark by his daring exploits (1778–79) in the West, climaxed by the second capture of Vincennes, established the revolutionists' prestige on the frontier. Gen. John Sullivan led an expedition (1779) against the British and Native Americans in upper New York.

The chief fighting, however, was now in the South. The British had taken Savannah in 1778. In 1780, Sir Henry Clinton attacked and took Charleston (which had resisted attacks in 1776 and 1779) and sent Gen. Charles Cornwallis off on the Carolina campaign. Cornwallis swept forward to beat Horatio Gates soundly at Camden (Aug., 1780), and only guerrilla bands under Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter continued to oppose the British S of Virginia.

Another low point had been reached in American fortunes. Bitter complaints of the inefficiency of the Congress, political conniving, lack of funds and food, and the strains of long-continued war had engendered widespread apathy and disaffection, and the British tried to take advantage of the division among the people. In 1780 occurred the most celebrated of the disaffections, the treason of Benedict Arnold. Lack of pay and shortages of clothing and food drove some Continental regiments into a mutiny of protest in Jan., 1781.

The dark, however, was already lifting. A crowd of frontiersmen with their rifles defeated a British force at Kings Mt. in Oct., 1780, and Nathanael Greene, who had replaced Gates as commander in the Carolina campaign, and his able assistant, Daniel Morgan, together with Thaddeus Kosciusko and others, ultimately forced Cornwallis into Virginia. The stage was set for the Yorktown campaign.

Now the French aid counted greatly, for Lafayette with colonial troops held the British in check, and it was a Franco-American force that Washington and the comte de Rochambeau led from New York S to Virginia. The French fleet under Admiral de Grasse played the decisive part.

Previously naval forces had been of little consequence in the Revolution. State navies and a somewhat irregular national navy had been of less importance than Revolutionary privateers. Esek Hopkins had led a raid in the Bahamas in 1776, John Barry won a name as a gallant commander, and John Paul Jones was one of the most celebrated commanders in all U.S. naval history, but their exploits were isolated incidents.

It was the French fleet—ironically, the same one defeated by the British under Admiral Rodney the next year in the West Indies—that bottled up Cornwallis at Yorktown. Outnumbered and surrounded, the British commander surrendered (Oct. 19, 1781), and the fighting was over. The rebels had won the American Revolution.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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