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Key Battles of the Revolutionary War


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The Revolutionary War started when a few colonists fired their muskets against the British Empire, then the world’s military superpower. It ended—against all reasonable expectations— with an independent American and the ideas of liberty and self-governance spreading across the globe. All that happened because the rebels won the major battles. This podcast dives deep into each of them.


Scroll down to listen to the episodes in this podcast series.

Introduction to Key Battles of the Revolutionary War

This is the first episode in a multi-part series on the ten most important battles of the Revolutionary War. Scott Rank is joined by history professor James Early to get into the military history of the American Revolution, whose effects are still being felt in the United States and the rest of the world today.

Part 1: The World of the American Revolution

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Grab your musket and your portion of rum, Yankee, because we have a war to fight! James Early returns to the History Unplugged Podcast to kick off a massive series called Key Battles of the Revolutionary War. We get in-depth into the battles that determined the outcome of one of the most consequential wars in history. But we also go deep into the background of social, political, cultural, and theological aspects of the 18th century.

Scott and James kick off this episode by talking about the global-level changes in society that made the Revolutionary War possible in the 1770s, and almost impossible anytime earlier. They have to do with changes in warfare and weapons, government/society, political philosophy, British governing policy, and the American colonies themselves.



Part 2: Background to the War

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Our series is picking up steam as we jump to the years immediately prior to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. James and Scott discuss the interregnum between the French-Indian War and the Revolutionary War, the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), then Townsend Acts (1767), the Boston Massacre (1770), the Tea Act (1773), and the Coercive Acts (1774).



Episode 3: Lexington and Concord

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The Battles of Lexington and Concord were of minor military significance but of world-historical importance in the modern era. They were the first military engagements of the Revolutionary War, marking the outbreak of armed conflict between Great Britain and its thirteen colonies on the North American mainland. Fought on April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord ruin British political strategy of ending colonial opposition to the Intolerable Acts and seizing weapons of rebels. Revolutionary leaders such as John Adams considered the battle to be a point of no return: “The Die was cast, the Rubicon crossed,” he said.









Episode 4: British and Continental Soldiers

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The Continental Army and the British Army were significantly different in their organizational structure, levels of experience, and funding. The Continental Army was an undisciplined, unprepared fighting force with makeshift uniforms and sloppy tactics (at least at the beginning of the war). The British Army was the world’s elite fighting force and fresh of victory of the globe-spanning Seven Years War against France and her allies. What caused the Continental Army to prevail in the Revolutionary War?



Episode 5: Bunker Hill (1/2)

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With the Revolutionary War turning from cold to hot, the British made plans to send troops from Boston to break the Colonials’ siege of that city and occupy the surrounding hills. About one thousand militiamen fortified Breed’s Hill to prepare for the coming onslaught. It was the first serious battle that pitted the fiery but inexperienced colonists against the battle-hardened British.

Episode 6: Bunker Hill (2/2)

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“Dont’ fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” — famous words, and smart strategy for using terribly inaccurate muskets, but what were the conditions that gave rise to that advice? Find out in this episode, as the Battle of Bunker hill wraps up.




















































Episode 7: The Quebec Campaign

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The Continental Army thought they could rally the French-speaking residents of Canada in their uprising against the British. Such thinking led to the Quebec Campaign. Although a major defeat for the Americans, it showed the dogged determinism of American commander Benedict Arnold, who also showed his bravery in the Battle of Saratoga before defecting to the British.


Episode 8: The Battle of Quebec

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The Battle of Quebec, fought on December 31, 1775, marked the end of American offensive operations in Canada. General Richard Montgomery was killed, Arnold wounded, and Daniel Morgan and more than four hundred American soldiers taken prisoner. Returning forces of the Continental Army arrived ragged and nearly starved.

Episode 9: Sidetrack Episode — The Declaration of Independence

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In the background of the opening battles of the Revolutionary War, an assembly of colonial statesmen issued a document announcing their formal separation from the British Empire. How did this document come about, what did the British make of it, and how revolutionary were these ideas to an eighteenth-century audience?


Episode 10: The New York Campaign (1/2)

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When the British left Boston, George Washington realized that their eventual destination would be New York City. He quickly traveled to NYC to oversee the building of defenses, organized the Continental Army into divisions, and prepared for the invasion. What happened next was the largest battle of the entire war and (if not for a miraculous stroke of good luck in the form of fog) the near-total defeat of the Patriots.



Episode 11: The New York Campaign (2/2)

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The New York Campaign ended in a decisive victory for the British and terrible defeat for the Continental Army, which barely escaped destruction. It was completely driven out of New York fro the rest of the war, and the British used it as a base of attack against other targets for years to come.






Episode 12: Crossing the Delaware

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At the end of 1776 George Washington was in a desperate situation. The Continental Army had retreated completely out of New York after losing Long Island to British General William Howe. Many of his soldiers’ contracts were set to expire at years end. He needed a dramatic victory, and fast. An opportunity arose when intelligence revealed Hessian forces camped in Trenton, New Jersey that were vulnerable to a sneak attack.


Episode 13: The Battle of Princeton Proves George Washington Was So Lucky, It Was Almost Supernatural

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Washington and his men had their work cut out for them after crossing the Delaware River. Over the next ten days, they won two battles. First, the Patriots defeated a Hessian garrison on December 26th. They then returned to Trenton a week later to draw British force south, then launched a night attack to capture Princeton on January 3rd. With the victory, New Jersey fell into Patriot hands.

Episode 14: The Saratoga Campaign: Turning Point of the Revolutionary War

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The Saratoga campaign gave a decisive victory to the Americans over the British during the American Revolutionary War. The battle also saw great heroics by Benedict Arnold.


Episode 15: The Battle of Saratoga—Benedict Arnold, An American Hero

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The Battle of Saratoga was an incredible turn of fortunes for the United States. British Gen. John Burgoyne thought he would cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. Instead, he lost the battle and was forced to surrender 20,000 troops. Saratoga was also Benedict Arnold’s finest hour. He loathed American commander Horatio Gates, who relieved Arnold of his command. Nonetheless, at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, 1777, Arnold took command of American soldiers whom he led in an assault against the British. Arnold’s fierce attack disordered the enemy and led to an American victory. The decisive Patriot victory compelled France to enter the war as an ally with the United States.

Episode 16: Victory At Saratoga: France Enters the War

Benedict Arnold’s fierce attack disordered the enemy and led to an American victory. The decisive Patriot victory compelled France to enter the war as an ally with the United States.

Episode 17: The Philadelphia Campaign: When Britain Took Over Ben Franklin’s House

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The Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-8 was a British attempt to capture Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States and the seat of the Continental Congress, led by Gen. William Howe. They did capture the city, but British disaster loomed north in the Saratoga campaign, threatening any British gains.



Episode 18: How France and America Cooperated During the Revolutionary War

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The Battle of Rhode Island (also known as the Battle of Quaker Hill and the Battle of Newport) took place on August 29, 1778. The battle was the first attempt at cooperation between French and American forces following France’s entry into the war as an American ally.

Episode 19: The War Moves South (And Benedict Arnold Commits Treason)

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In 1778, the battle lines of the Revolutionary War moved from New England to the southern colonies. Lord George Germain, the British secretary responsible for the war, wrote to Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton that capturing the southern colonies was “considered by the King as an object of great importance in the scale of the war” Germain and the king believed that the majority of southern colonists were loyalists and that if the British army could take key parts of the South, Loyalists would rise up to join the British and at the very least, the southern colonies could be brought back into the empire. In September 1778, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Lincoln as the commander of Continental forces in the South. In November of that year, British forces conducted several raids into Georgia. The next month, a force of about 3000 British regulars under Archibald Campbell arrived and captured Savannah on December 29. They took Augusta a month later but soon withdrew due to the presence of American forces nearby.


Episode 20: King’s Mountain & Cowpens: The Revolutionary War’s Largest ‘All-American Fight’

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The Battles of King’s Mountain and Cowpens were fought in 1781, between the Continental Army under Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and British forces under Lieutenant Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton, as part of the campaign in the Carolinas. Daniel Morgan, who had been sent south by Washington, joined Nathanael Greene’s army. Greene decided to send Morgan with a force of militia and cavalry westward. This dividing of his army was risky, but Greene wrote “It makes the most of my inferior force for it compels my adversary to divide his.”


Episode 21: The Siege of Yorktown: American and France Corner Britain

The Battle of Yorktown sealed the fate of the Revolutionary War. In late 1781, American and French troops laid siege to the British Army at Yorktown, Virginia. First, a bit of background. The partisan warfare that kept occurring in the upcountry of the Carolinas made it impossible for the British to obtain supplies from there. This in turn made it necessary for Cornwallis to keep his army relatively close to the coast. Greene kept his army far enough from Cornwallis to avoid a major pitched battle while constantly trying to lure Cornwallis away from the coast. Greene’s strategy was (in Allen Guelzo’s words) “dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” In this, he was assisted by a cavalry commander named Col. Henry (“Light Horse Harry”) Lee, as well as Francis Marion and Daniel Morgan. Skirmishers of the two armies occasionally fought each other, but the main armies never met.























  1. The partisan warfare that kept occurring in the upcountry of the Carolinas made it impossible for the British to obtain supplies from there.
  2. This in turn made it necessary for Cornwallis to keep his army relatively close to the coast.
  3. Greene kept his army far enough from Cornwallis to avoid a major pitched battle while constantly trying to lure Cornwallis away from the coast. Greene’s strategy was (in Allen Guelzo’s words) “dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
  4. In this, he was assisted by a cavalry commander named Col. Henry (“Light Horse Harry”) Lee, as well as Francis Marion and Daniel Morgan.
  5. Skirmishers of the two armies occasionally fought each other, but the main armies never met.


Guilford Court House

  1. After Cowpens, Morgan’s force reunited with Greene’s army.  Together they tried to lure Cornwallis to follow them westward.
  2. Cornwallis tried to trap Greene against the Yadkin River, but with the help of his boats, Greene got away. (Cornwallis had no boats.)
  3. Cornwallis finally crossed the river and went after Greene, trying to trap him against the Dan River (in VA).  On February 14, Greene again escaped across the river. (“The race to the Dan”) There he gained supplies and new recruits.
  4. On February 25, Lee surprised 400 Loyalist militia, killing 90 of them, while shouting “Remember Buford!”
  5. Cornwallis fell back to central NC and began to march toward Wilmington.
  6. Greene re-crossed the Dan and shadowed Cornwallis.
  7. On March 15, near Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis turned to attack Greene.  By then, Cornwallis’ force was down to 2000.
  8. Greene deployed his force into three lines as Morgan had at Cowpens.
  9. The battle went back and forth.  The two sides became jumbled up, and there was much hand-to-hand fighting. At one point, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire into the mass of infantry, killing both British and Americans.
  10. The Americans retreated from the field, ending the battle. It was a technical British victory, but a Pyrrhic one. The Americans lost about 90 dead and 180 wounded, while the British lost 90 dead and 400 wounded…this was nearly 25% of their force.
  11. Cornwallis wrote “I never saw such fighting since God made me.  The Americans fought like demons.”
  12. Cornwallis reached Wilmington on April 7.  But where would he go next?


Cornwallis Marches to Virginia

  1. Cornwallis decided to take the war to Virginia, the source of many of the supplies for Greene’s army.  This, he felt, would force Greene to follow him into VA, at which time Cornwallis could turn and strike him.
  2. Meanwhile, Greene attacked the British garrison at Camden, SC but was driven off.
  3. Also, a British expedition raided VA, burning and destroying much rebel property along the James River. The expedition was conducted by Loyalists led by the newly minted British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.
  4. A French fleet based in Newport sailed toward the Chesapeake with the intention of attacking Arnold’s force, but the British fleet in the area fought the French off.
  5. They returned to Newport and were soon joined by 20 more “ships of the line” under the command of Admiral Francois De Grasse.  This gave the French naval superiority in North America.
  6. Cornwallis decided to establish a new supply base at Portsmouth, VA, at the mouth of the James River.
  1. Events in the North
    1. Washington’s army had been surrounding New York City since 1778.  Washington was convinced that taking NYC was the key to winning the war.
    2. In April 1780, 5000 French troops under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Newport, RI.
    3. Rochambeau was reluctant to attack New York until he had more soldiers (more were due to arrive the following spring).  Also the French were more interested in attacking Britain in the West Indies than in the Colonies.


Spring-Summer 1781

  1. Washington dispatched a small army under the command of Lafayette to capture Arnold.  If they could catch him, Lafayette had orders to hang Arnold on the spot.
  2. Lafayette reached Richmond in April, but Arnold had left.  Lafayette withdrew northward.
  3. Cornwallis sent Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe to attack a Patriot force under Baron Von Steuben.  Steuben’s troops refused to fight, and he had to retreat.
  4. Cornwallis also sent Tarleton to Richmond with 180 dragoons. They chased the VA state legislature and Governor Thomas Jefferson to Charlottesville.  Jefferson went to his home at Monticello. Tarleton’s force pursued him, reaching Monticello only 10 minutes after Jefferson left.



Episode 22: The Battle of Yorktown: Britain’s Surrender in the Revolutionary War

On October 14, 1781, Washington and French General Comte de Rochambeau attacked on October 14th, capturing two British defense. British Gen. Cornwallis surrendered two days later.

Cornwallis Moves to the Coast

  1. Cornwallis realized that the terrain around Portsmouth made it difficult to build fortifications.
  2. He then chose another destination, a spot on the York River called Yorktown.  There he began building fortifications.
  3. Meanwhile the British posts in South Carolina and Georgia fell to Patriot forces.  By the summer of 1781, the only British-held land in the south was the coastal strip between Charleston and Savannah.
  4. At the beginning of August 1781, Washington “turned my views more seriously than I had before done to the operations to the southward.”
  5. The French, learning of Cornwallis’ positon, also became interested in attacking there.  The French fleet, now in the Caribbean, could sail to the Chesapeake and bottle up the British there, preventing supply or escape. They sailed on August 14 with 29 ships and 3000 men.
  6. The main British fleet was occupied with affairs in the Caribbean, realizing too late that the French fleet had left. By the time the British fleet caught up with the French, they were already inside the Chesapeake Bay.
  7. Washington wanted to maintain complete secrecy of their destination. To ensure this, he sent out fake dispatches that reached Clinton revealing that the Franco-American army was going to launch an attack on New York, and that Cornwallis was not in danger.
  8. On August 19, Washington left a small part of his army around New York and marched southward with 3000 soldiers. The French followed a few days later with 4000. This march is a classic example of speed and attention to logistics.
  9. Cornwallis was now virtually trapped. One of Washington’s generals said he was in “a pudding bag.”Prelude to Yorktown
    1. Cornwallis believed he was not cut off due to the presence of the British fleet and because Clinton had sent a message promising reinforcements.
    2. The French fleet arrived at the end of August. On September 5, the British fleet arrived. The two sides fought a battle in which the French won and drove the British fleet away.
    3. By September 28, Washington had landed his army on the York peninsula.  More American and French troops arrived, bringing the total allied force to about 16,000.
    4. The British position was completely surrounded by trenches and redoubts.  But food was running out. Cornwallis ordered all the horses slaughtered to save on the need for fodder.
    5. For two weeks, Cornwallis did nothing. Washington called his conduct “passive beyond conception.”The Battle of Yorktown
      1. By October 6, the allies had built their first parallel siege line.  It was only 600 yards from the British position.
      2. Cornwallis had a chain of 10 redoubts but only 65 cannons and 7500 soldiers plus several hundred Marines and a few Loyalists.  He had only one other general to assist him.
      3. Washington had Knox, Lafayette, von Steuben, Anthony Wayne, and Benjamin Lincoln (who had been exchanged in October 1780).
      4. On October 9, the allies began to bombard the British position.  Lafayette asked VA governor Thomas Nelson if he had a target to recommend.  “Yes, yes,” Nelson replied, recommending his own house. “Fire upon it, my dear Marquis, and never spare a particle of my property so long as it affords a comfort or a shelter to the enemies of my country.”
      5. On October 11, the Allies began digging a second parallel line of trenches, only 300 yards from the British line.  By October 14, they were close enough to attempt to assault Redoubts 9 and 10, which the British had abandoned. One group of attackers was led by Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The Allies connected the redoubts to the second line of trenches.
      6. On the 16th, Cornwallis decided to abandon Yorktown, cross the York River, and attempt a breakout from Gloucester Point under the cover of darkness. He managed to get one part of his army across, but before the next group could cross, a storm blew in and prevented the rest of the army from escaping.
      7. The next morning, the Americans again shelled the British position. The Americans were greeted by the sight of a drummer on a British parapet who was soon followed by an officer waving a white flag of truce. Cornwallis had decided to surrender. The officer walked to the American position, where he was blindfolded and led behind Allied lines. There he made an offer to surrender the British army.
      8. The official surrender documents were signed on the 19th. That afternoon, the British (7000 in all) stacked their arms and colors. Cornwallis, pleading illness, sent his second in command General O’Hara. He offered his sword to Rochambeau, who told him to give it to Washington. Washington declined the sword and told O’Hara to give it to Benjamin Lincoln.
      9. The British band played a song called “The World Turned Upside Down.”  The American band played “Yankee Doodle” in retaliation.
      10. Washington invited the top-ranking British officers to dine with him after the surrender…except Tarleton.

Episode 23: The Revolutionary War Comes to an End

After Yorktown, a truce was declared in America, although some skirmishes did break out until final peace was negotiated in Paris in 1783. In this episode, Scott and James look at what happened to the British and American generals and politicians involved in the war.



Episode 24: George Washington’s Spies: The Culper Ring, Nathan Hale, and the Plot to Capture Benedict Arnold

Spycraft was seen as a treacherous craft, but it was necessary to win a war. Washington knew this, as his early attempts to gather intelligence on British-occupied New York led to an execution of Nathan Hale, a young school teacher. More sophisticated networks developed, particularly the Culper Spy ring, which involved a farmer, a whaleboat captain, a tavern owner, and a slave.


Episode 25: 237 Years After the Revolutionary War, Some Say It Was a Mistake. Are They Right?

There are few events that would shake the world order like the success of the American Revolution. Some changes would be felt immediately. English traditions such as land inheritance laws were swept away. Other changes took longer. Slavery would not be abolished for another hundred years. Americans began to feel that their fight for liberty was a global fight. Future democracies would model their governments on the United States’.