When General George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did he take command of an “army”, equipped with with an average of only nine rounds per man.
1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.
Manhandled all the way from the frozen wilderness of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.
General sir William Howe faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill. A British victory, yes, but one which came at a cost that Howe could ill afford to pay again.
The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when that fleet evacuated Boston Harbor, and removed to Nova Scotia. Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw. The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor along with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.
The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.
King’s Regular and Rebel alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communications between the New England colonies, and those in the south. Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, placing his troops along the west end of Long Island in anticipation of the British arrival.
The British fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June. Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island, under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother. By August 12 the British force numbered 400 vessels with 73 warships, with a force of some 32,000 camped on Staten island.
American forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. The British dug in for a siege, confident that their adversary was cornered and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience, while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.
Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great feats of military history. The surprise was complete for the British side on waking for the morning of August 30, to discover that the American army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.
That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.
By December, the Continental army had fled New York, to the south of New Jersey. Already reduced to a puny force of only 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced a decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of those. With nowhere to go but on offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25, defeating a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.
While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of its time. Cornwallis had suffered three defeats in the last ten days, and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey. American morale soared, as enlistments came flooding in.
The American war for independence would not be over, for another six years. Before it was through, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined. Yet, that first year had come and gone, and the former colonies were still in the fight.
A generation later, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain “Corsican corporal” at a place called Waterloo. Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815: “It was a damn close run thing“.