What factors led to American success in the American War of Independence?

An essay by Birmingham War Studies graduate Rob Gillow.

American success in the War of Independence was primarily the result of the conflict escalating into a global struggle that the British did not want to fight.   The involvement of the French, Spanish and eventually the Dutch placed Britain in a vulnerable position from which both the politicians and the armed forces began to question the value of fighting in America. These doubts were increased when it became clear that Britain didn’t have the resources required to win in America whilst also protecting their other colonies and the home islands. This is in comparison to the American revolutionists whose commitment and will to fight was far greater than their enemies and itself was an important factor in American success. The resistance and dogged nature shown by the colonials and revolutionaries was reflected in their fighting style and capitalised on by good leadership. The American generals, aware of their deficiencies sought to wear down the British until America had established both allies and its own armed forces capable of victory. This victory can be seen as the British surrender of Yorktown on the 19th October 1781. Whilst it is still conceivable that Britain could have carried on fighting and even still won the war from this point the British had in fact given up. This is best expressed by the military theorist Clausewitz, who writes: “As soon, therefore, as the required outlay becomes so great that the political object is no longer equal in value, the object must be given up, and peace will be the result.” This essay will consider why Britain failed to subdue the revolution and why it didn’t commit enough to the conflict in North America, taking into account the global context of the war. However the role of America should not be overshadowed by the unwillingness of the British. The tactics and strategy employed by America as well as the excellent leadership demonstrated at times by both generals and politicians throughout the war played a vital role and ergo will also be considered.

Initially the American War of Independence was a confined and largely asymmetrical conflict. Britain possessed a more than adequate navy and highly trained armed forces. Furthermore Jeremy Black notes that “suppressing a rebellion within the dominions of the British Crown was not a novel problem for the British Armed Forces in the eighteenth century.” This highlights Britain’s experience in dealing with such matters which perhaps resulted in overconfidence when dealing with the conflict in America. The fighting itself started as a small scale conflict by European standards.

Yet Britain’s inability to crush the uprising or George Washington’s armies drew the attention of foreign powers, Britain appeared weak. Thus powers such as Bourbon France began to respond to the diplomatic advances of the American Congress and sent vital aid to America, such as guns and ammunition. They also began to consider the possibility of entering the conflict directly.  Following the defeat of the British at Saratoga the French stepped up their support of the Americans from smuggled aid to a fully signed treaty of alliance which was signed on the 6th of February 1778. Within the treaty was ‘Article 10’ Which stated: “The most Christian King and the United States, agree to invite or admit other Powers who may have received injuries from England to make common cause with them, and to accede to the present alliance, under such conditions as shall be freely agreed to and settled between all the Parties.” These injured parties included Spain and the Dutch who entered the conflict in June 1779 and December 1780 respectively.

This was disastrous for the British who had hoped for a quick and decisive victory, now due to foreign involvement they had to fully mobilise and faced the prospect of a long and costly war.  Furthermore the intervention of these powers and escalation of the war denied the British the naval supremacy they had long enjoyed and freely exploited in America. With a sizeable enemy navy now operating in the waters around America as well as commitments elsewhere the British navy could no longer stick to its trusted strategy of blockade and thus starve out the revolution. These ‘commitments elsewhere’ refer to the fact the Britain was now fighting in multiple theatres, conflict had arisen in the Caribbean, Africa, India and Europe. Even the Home islands themselves were threatened. Britain’s woes were further inflated by the lack of an ally on the continent. During the previous war Britain had Prussia as an ally who diverted and defeated large amounts of French resources, yet during this conflict Britain had no such luxury.  The Eastern European powers were focused upon themselves thus Britain had to fight the full force of France itself.

The full extent of the complications arisen from European involvement can be shown from the concerns of leading British politicians. General Amherst, who became Commander-in-Chief of the forces in April 1778, strongly advised pulling out of the war upon hearing of the Franco-American treaty. This idea was rejected as many felt abandoning the war would invite America to attack Canada and the West Indies, the consensus feeling that the West Indies in particular couldn’t afford to be lost.  Upon opposition to this idea Amherst instead insisted upon the king that “the colonial war was now a secondary consideration in a situation in which the primary concern had to be France.” As for the actual fighting in America the possibility of a decisive defeat of the main British Amy in the field was now feasible with French military intervention. This possibility came to realisation at Yorktown where the combined efforts of the American army and French navy resulted in the surrender of a British army. Following this defeat Britain sought terms however Benjamin Franklin noted of the British “That they were ready to treat of Peacebut intimated that if France should insist upon terms too humiliating to England, they could still continue the war, having yet great strength and many resources left.” This further highlights how the British concern was the French and not America, which it was now willing to relinquish.

As noted by Franklin the defeat at Yorktown did not necessarily mean the end of the war as Britain still had the resources to carry on fighting. K. Perry notes After 1782 Britain could have carried on the war having won back some form of naval superiority but the “political will to attempt it had gone.” Especially now the new administration of the Marquis of Rockingham that had replaced Lord North on the 27th March 1782 was ‘pro-independence’. However the reluctance to fight was not a result of Yorktown but had been present in Britain since the start of the outcome. Interestingly the conflict in America wasn’t the main concern for many. On the  6th December 1765 King George III stated “I am more and more grieved at the accounts from America where this spirit will end is not to be said; it is undoubtedly the most serious matter that ever came before Parliament it requires more deliberation, candour and temper then I fear it will meet with.” For many America was vital to British power and prosperity, this view was backed by the fact in 1772-3 America took roughly a quarter of all British exports. Yet for others it wasn’t, especially when compared to possession such as India. Notably after Massachusetts Assembly’s actions in 1768 the British cabinet met to discuss the matter but was more focused on the East India Bill.

This apprehension about the conflict in America is shown through Parliament’s constant refusal to send the required reinforcements to its generals in America, instead on the 21st March 1778 it ordered Clinton to send 5000 troops to attack St Lucia and 3000 to reinforce Florida. As well as not sending enough reinforcements Britain sent generals with orders to try and negotiate with the revolutionist. General Howe, who himself had great sympathy for the Americans, was instructed to treat with the Americans as well as destroy them. These paradoxical orders resulted in his reluctance to push hard on the Americans after the Long Island victory in hope of negotiating. This allowed Washington and his army to escape instead of a crushing victory which could have potentially ended the war.  Addressing parliament in 1779 to explain his actions Howe said “Would it not have had the effect of alienating the minds of the Americans from his Majesty’s government, rather than terrifying them into obedience.” Here in lies the main problem for Britain, even if they successfully put down the revolution they would still have to control a largely hostile population. Sir Charles Bunbury recognised this, calling for the war to be abandoned due to the high cost and “intractability of the war.” He recognised Britain was fighting an idea that couldn’t simply be put down by military strength. This is explained by Black who writes “The restoration of the colonies to royal government would be pointless if they required a substantial garrison and if embers of rebellion remained among a discontented population.” Ironically the only way to keep such a ‘substantial garrison’ in America would be to tax the colonies which was one of the main reason the war occurred in the first place, potentially creating an endless cycle of political unrest and conflict. It is because of this that Perry believed that “Britain had lost the colonies by 1775 and the war that followed was merely a painful way of learning that lesson.” Britain soon realised this and during negotiations agreed “The Allowing of American Independence on condition that England be put into the same Situation that she was left in by the Peace of 1763.”

The American will and determination for independence can therefore be seen as a major factor for American success in the war of independence. America had been witness to a “period of benign neglect” from the British following the seven years war and as such tension had grown. American suspicion about British intentions was fuelled by events such as the Boston massacre of 1770 and the introduction of the Stamp Act in 1765. The growing resentment of the Americans was seen by Sir John Wenthworth who was Governor of New Hampshire. Writing on the 2nd of November 1770 “although the violent effusions are and will be surpassed by navy and army – yet I verily think a far more dangerous spirit is thereby rooting in the minds of the people.” As events developed the British ministry was extremely surprised by the scale and spread of resistance they were faced with. Additionally the Colonials refused to be intimidated by British aggression and displays of military strength which had been hoped to scare the population and prevent the uprising from growing. Instead the unrest grew and on the 4th of July 1776 at Philadelphia the Continental Congress declared the colonies independent.

The importance of the Declaration of Independence as a factor for American success in the war has been greatly debated. To historians such as Robert Middlekauff it was a “glorious act”, a standard to fight under and for. This view is indeed shared by the American generals who witnessed an increase in volunteers and a vital boost to morale following it’s declaration despite crushing defeats. Washington had it read out to the troops preparing to fight at Long Island to boost morale and invigorate the troops. In contrast John Adams saw it more as a formal procedure and boldly felt “the revolution was complete, in the minds of the people, and the union of the colonies, before the war commenced in the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington on 14 April 1775.” This view, although very naïve of the military aspects highlights how the revolutionaries were determined to win the war at any cost. This dogged nature of the American fighters is best reflected by General Nathanael Greene whose campaign in the south featured numerous defeats in battle yet still ended up victorious. Of this campaign he said: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.”

This resilient nature featured throughout the war but was as much a product of British creation as American. Throughout the war British politicians and generals enraged the colonial population and ultimately fanned the fire of their own destruction. Following the declaration of Independence King George III passed the Intolerable act and made a speech which greatly infuriated the American revolutionists and scuppered any chance of negotiation to avoid further conflict.  Thomas Jefferson wrote of it how it “plainly proved a deliberate and systematically plan of reducing us to slavery.” Other examples include Burgoyne’s statement and threat to unleash the Indians on Northern America which ultimately rallied the dysfunctional army that opposed him in the north. His eventual defeat and the victory of the Trenton-Princeton campaign greatly boosted morale and proved a humiliation to Britain. These incidents’ consequences can be seen through America’s refusal to negotiate despite the numerous British victories. When asked to surrender by General Howe in July 1776 Benjamin Franklin replied “It is impossible we should think of submission to a government, that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty, burnt our defenceless towns in the midst of winter, excited the savages to massacre our farmers, and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing in foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood” The “foreign mercenaries” he refers to may well be the Hessian troops that were left to hold the Delaware River line over the winter of 1776. These troops greatly pillaged the land for food and supplies, ignoring the orders of British who still hoped to negotiate and thus didn’t ravage the land. The inability of the British to destroy the will of the enemy despite its numerous victories or to even bring America to the negotiating table can therefore be seen a vital factor in American success. Whilst a failing of the British, this is much more due to the will of the revolutionists and their desire for independence.

Ultimately the lack of political will and the spread of the conflict around the world resulted in a severe lack of supplies and reinforcement for the British. At the start of the conflict Britain was had the strongest navy and public finance system in the world. Yet America was 3000 miles away and was an extremely vast land that Britain lacked the army to conquer and control. Reinforcements were not forthcoming and such limitations were pressing matters for commanders,  General Howe was very aware he couldn’t afford to lose too many troops as they wouldn’t be replaced and hence took a cautious approach. The British army was small. In 1776 Britain had 40,522 men in North America, of which 13,482 were in Canada. Even then this inadequate number of troops was the biggest a British government had ever sent abroad. Surprisingly in October 1780, despite the need for reinforcements because of the escalation of the war and various setbacks the amount of troops in North America was smaller. They now numbered 15, 739 under Clinton in New York with a further 3838 in Canada. Meanwhile in Britain there were 34,977. This was the result of the war spreading to other theatres, some of which were deemed more important than America such as the West Indies where Britain’s naval commitment of ships of the line rose from 8% in July 1778 to 48% in April 1782.This shows how Britain’s strength did grow during the war. The British navy grew from 16,000 in 1775 to 107,000 in 1783. Yet the American campaign failed to receive the reinforcements it required whilst places such as Gibraltar received huge convoys of supplies which themselves required escorts during the course of a siege which lasted three and a half years.

This asks the question of why supplies and reinforcements weren’t sent to America if they were available. We’ve already established there was a lack of political will to fight but the reasons go beyond that. One main reason was that Britain hoped to mobilise the loyalist populations of America and use it as reinforcements to its army.  However Britain couldn’t offer the necessary protection to the loyalists and their land which they demanded in return for service. As well as the loyalists the British failed to gain Indian support to the same extent as they had in the Seven Years War. They also failed to take advantage of the slaves who made up 1/6th of population. Instead of using the local population Britain turned towards German auxiliaries which in 1778-9 made up 33% of the British strength in America. This was for more costly and added an unnecessary burden to an already overstretched budget, a cost which totalled £124 Million by the end of the war for the British.

Britain also thought it was fighting a losing battle on the supply and manpower front.  America was a wealthy society due to its plantation nature. This meant it could sustain a long war effort for a sufficient period and buy the vital equipment from its European allies. Furthermore there was a belief that America had a seemingly endless supply of reinforcements, as shown by Lieutenant James Hadden who wrote in May 1781 “we must conquer a people who get recruits within ten miles, while ours come three thousand.” However these beliefs were misguided as revolutionaries suffered almost as much as Britain in terms of supplies. Washington, like his British counterparts often called for reinforcements. He was promised 80,000 troops at the start of the war but had to wait for congress to recruit them in a fair and diplomatic manner. Furthermore in the winter of 1777-8 there was a crisis of transport and supply. Disaster was only narrowly avoided by the skill of Greene who in a new quartermaster general role sorted out logistical problems plaguing the armies. Despite these improvements Greene still observed of his army that “The regular force that is here is so naked and destitute of everything, that but little more than half of them are fit for any kind of duty.” Therefore we can see how resource problems plagued both sides in the conflict. If anything it proved a further reason for Britain to discontinue the war and the lack of will to carry on fighting it.

The fighting itself though must be considered when contemplating why America won the War of Independence. Throughout the war Britain won countless victories yet still lost overall. This idea of tactical defeat but strategic victory was vital in American success in the war. As discussed earlier Britain was unable to ever fully crush the continental army. According to Clausewitz the Destruction of an enemies force is vital for submission. Thus it was Washington’s belief that in this small war of attrition his “primary task was to keep his small army together through difficult times.” To this extent many saw Washington’s army as the revolution itself. This army was poor compared to its British enemies. This gap was slowly closed with the help of the Prussian Augustus von Steueben who developed new and simple drills to train the troops. Furthermore American culture played a factor as recognised by Charles Mellish MP who noted that there was “constant use of firelock from childhood.” Thus Washington had at his disposal a large amount of sharpshooters who wrecked havoc amongst the organised British.

The leadership demonstrated as well was vital for American success. The revolutionaries were lead by competent leaders. There was Washington who had learnt from his mistakes in the Seven Years War and was now more prudent and cautious because of it. Greene also was capable and possessed an “unrelenting belief in the ultimate victory of his cause.” The British commanders were left caught between trying to defeat their enemy and negotiate with them and as such never developed a decent strategy. Furthermore there was a lack of unity as generals and admirals all failed to work together. For example Burgoyne and Clinton had already set sail to attack from Canada by the time London learnt of Howe’s plan to attack Philadelphia by sea  and as a result neither armies were able to link up as planned and were defeated. The politicians as well were poor. Lord North was a good finance minister and parliamentary manager but not a war leader, his failings seemingly further exaggerated as he was following in the shadow of Pitt.

In conclusion it is clear there is a vast array of reasons as to why America was successful in the War of Independence. There is a line of argument that suggests the lack of will to fight from the British was the main reason although alternatively it was the American resolve for independence that forced Britain’s hand. Either way the development of the conflict from an isolated war into an international conflict was the key event and eventual factor that resulted in British defeat and therefore American victory. Yet it must be remembered that such a victory could not have been achieved without earlier success which greatly depended on the fine leadership and strategy of the revolutionary forces.


Black, J. War for America – The fight for Independence 1775-1783 (Stroud, 1991)

Clausewitz, C. On War (Wordsworth edn., London, 1997)

Dickinson, H. Britain and the American Revolution (London, 1998)

Middlekauff, R. The Glorious Cause (Oxford, 2005)

Parker, G. Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (Cambridge, 1995)

Perry, K.  British Politics and the American Revolution (London, 1990)

Roberts, A. The Art of War (London, 2009)

Franklin Papers: