U.S. Revolutionary War

by Jim Walker, 13-May-2002

enhanced by Dæ Powell

Prelude to Revolution — 1763-1774. In 1763, Great Britain stood triumphant in North America after sweeping France from the continent with the help of the American colonists, and few, at that period, would have predicted the end of ties between crown and colonies. Yet by the last months of 1774, only the most indifferent observer could avoid the conclusion that Americans were headed toward open, armed rebellion.


he Americans did not rush to revolution. Before the final breach Great Britain and the colonies weathered a long series of conflicts that grew irreconcilable only toward the end, and during the twelve years of disagreements preceding the engagement of arms at Lexington and Concord, the clashes between mother country and colonies rose and fell in intensity.

The Thirteen American Colonies, with something over two million inhabitants (including about 500,000 black African slaves), formed a diverse group of political entities grouped in a relatively narrow band of farms, cities, and plantations that stretched along the Atlantic coastline from Canada to Florida, with here and there significant fingers of settlement reaching westward toward the Appalachian mountain barrier. Most of the colonies had developed from seventeenth-century settlements that were attempts by the British crown or British entrepreneurs to set up strategic or profit-making outposts in the New World. By the latter half of the 1700s the colonies displayed distinctive regional and individual differences, based on topography, economics, and culture.

To the north lay the four colonies of New England: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. These colonies had been founded primarily by groups or religious dissenters — Massachusetts by the Puritans who sought to establish a theocracy free from the trammels of what they saw as a decadent English church, the others by those who in turn could not live comfortably with the political and religious strictures of the Puritans. The New England colonies were characterized by farming, still to some degree organized around small villages that produced foodstuffs and some salable surpluses. On the long coastline, fishing dominated economic life, along with shipping and smuggling. The thriving Massachusetts city of Boston, with 15,000 inhabitants, was the economic and cultural center of New England, and it proved to be as well the first center of revolt.

As with nearly all the American colonies, New England had passed through a long series of changes in form of government during the seventeenth century and the first decades of the eighteenth, but by the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), all four New England provinces — again like other colonies — had established firm traditions of popular assemblies that served at least in some sense as counterpoints to royal governors and their administrations. Powerful local groups or individuals, such as the Wentworths of New Hampshire, often dominated local politics, but the voices of the freehold electors were not entirely still.

The Four Middle Colonies — Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware — had emerged from a long, muddled history of imperial rivalries and proprietary grants to form a prosperous, heterogeneous region by the eve of the Revolution. Philadelphia, a bustling seaport on the Delaware River, was the second largest city in the British overseas empire with 34,000 people. New York City numbered 22,000 and occupied a strategic point at the mouth of the Hudson River. The large reaches of woodland and farms in upper New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware supported the soundest economies of any of the American colonies, and diverse immigration had peopled the lands with Germans, Scotch-Irish, and English settlers.

Politically, the Middle Colonies presented a confused picture of relatively weak local governments. In Pennsylvania, the Penn family was still the nominal proprietary power, but in order to deal with difficult land disputes and interests of Philadelphia merchants, the British crown was often the real authority. The organization of royal governments in New Jersey, Delaware, and New York changed often and in the latter case was influenced by powerful land-holding families such as the De Lanceys.

The Middle Colonies were destined to play crucial roles in the Revolution, especially during the first years, when most of the battles between Americans and British took place between the Canadian border and Delaware Bay.

Southward lay the great agrarian colonies of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Characterized by fertile coastal regions, piedmont, and western mountains, these colonies had grown from a variety of proprietary enterprises and had developed political and economic cultures based for the most part on staple crops. In the Carolinas, rice culture had grown rapidly after the introduction of black slave labor, with Charleston (a city of 12,000 by the mid-1770s) the chief port. In Virginia and Maryland, tobacco was king.

In Virginia, the House of Burgesses had long served as a focus for the political life of the colony. Similar assemblies in the Carolinas, Maryland, and Georgia were less developed, probably as a result of their longer histories as proprietorship colonies.

Despite important areas of small farms and ethnic enclaves, the South was a region dominated by powerful landowners who amassed plantations and slaves while they sought to emulate the culture of England. The Revolution was to draw heavily on the South for political and military leadership — particularly from Virginia — and the final years of the armed struggle focused on the South.

The disagreements between these American colonies and Great Britain began over money. The costs of the Seven Years' War, of which the French and Indian War in North America formed but a part, had left a huge national debt hanging over the government of Britain. The young King George, who came to the throne in 1760, was determined to establish his influence and to see the colonies take on what British ministers understood as merely the proper burden of defense. Consequently, as soon as the French had been banished from the North American continent, a series of British ministries began to reverse the easygoing economic policies of the previous decades. They sought to enact and vigorously enforce a series of taxes and trade laws that would result in tapping the colonial economies for the benefit of the royal budget.

Since they were long accustomed to a lighter hand, the colonists bristled at the new policies, particularly the Stamp Act (1765), and soon began to associate the crown's economic incursions with encroachments on colonial political rights. A full-blown conflict took shape by the mid-1760s. The immediate crisis passed, but the pattern of resistance was established.

(Not all colonists became revolutionaries, and very large numbers of Loyalists remained devoted to the crown. Whether held to Britain by ties of political belief, patriotic sentiment, or economic interests, many Loyalists were to suffer irreparable losses as a result of the Revolution. Most lost their property and standing in the colonies, and thousands were to depart for Canada or Britain during and after the war.)

Despite a general lessening of tensions but 1770, specific conflicts persisted, and with each new disagreement, the colonists came more and more to cloak their protests in political terms. Eventually, Boston became the turning point, with the other colonies somewhat surprisingly rallying to the cause of the northern city. When the British government shut down the port of Boston, moved in more troops, and appointed a major general as governor of Massachusetts, the impending clash seemed unavoidable.

The Revolutionary War began with the confrontation between British troops and local militia at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, 19 April 1775. Throughout the war, state troops and local militias supplemented the Continental (federal) Army. The total number of men who served is not known, but the accepted number is about 250,000, including Continental forces of at least 14,000 officers and 80,000 enlisted men.

The original service records and the earliest pension records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed in fires in 1800 and 1814. Substitute records were used to make the compiled service records. These records are in Record Group 93 at the National Archives. For those of you researching ancestors during this period, lets hit a few highlights for materials to search.

Service Records for Revolutionary War Participants complied and maintained at the National Archives. See National Archives & Records Administration

Pension Records and Bounty Land Warrants — the first pension law in 1776 granted half-pay for life to soldiers disabled in the service and unable to earn a living. The first pension law based on service was passed in 1818, but was later amended to make eligible only those soldiers unable to earn a living. The pension act of 1832 allowed pensions again based on service and made widows of veterans also eligible to receive pension benefits. National Archives Microfilm Publication M804. (On 2,670 FHL films beginning with 0970001.) The files are alphabetically arranged. NARA Publication M804 pension and bounty land indexes and digital images are available online at Heritage Quest Online and Footnote. Heritage Quest images are limited to 10 pages per file. Compilers selected what they felt were the most siginificant 10 pages of the file. Footnote images are of the complete file. Both these databases are available to patrons at the FHL in Salt Lake. Heritage Quest is available to patrons of many local library systems. See Revolutionary War Bounty Land Warrants and Revolutionary War Pensions.

Unit Histories. Knowing the history of your ancestor's military unit can help you find a place of residence at the time of enlistment or help you find a death place.

Loyalist Records. During the war, many colonial citizens remained loyal to the English crown. Many Loyalists, or Tories, were eventually driven from their homes and settled in Canada, England, and the Caribbean. There were over a hundred Loyalist military regiments or corps.

Census Records. Census records from 1840 (Sixth Census of the United States) lists pensioners.

Cemetery Records. The DAR has published grave locations of Revolutionary War soldiers in a publication called DAR Annual Report to the Smithsonian Institution.

Lineage Societies and their records. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).

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