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WAR: 1775-1783

4. Sustaining the War


Within histories of any war are painstaking analyses of the leaders' strategic and diplomatic decisions—why? why not? what if? if so, then? In the previous section, we viewed critical decisions required of Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army—those involved in enlisting and keeping soldiers, feeding and clothing them, training them to fight as disciplined long-haul soldiers, directing them in battle, and, ultimately, winning the war. Here we focus on the decision-making process involved in six other challenges of sustaining a long hard-fought war. As you read the documents, follow the pro's and con's and the if-then's pondered by the decision makers. How did they deal with unknown or partially understood factors? When resolute in a decision, how did they express their convictions to the decision-makers above them, or to the implementers below them? (Selections include materials from the Library of Congress online collection, The Papers of George Washington).

  • Pacifying Indians on the frontier: selections from three documents, 1776-1778. Most Indian nations that took sides in the Revolution allied with the British. The resulting frontier warfare was ferocious, causing much civilian suffering in addition to diverting soldiers from the undermanned Continental regiments in the east. The frontier policy adopted by Congress to "conciliate the minds of the hostile tribes" is illustrated in these excerpts from the Congressional journals. How did the policy evolve? How did it backfire? What did Congress do then? (3 pp., Library of Congress.)

  • Recruiting enslaved blacks into the army: selections from six documents, 1776-1781. Britain recruited enslaved blacks into its army early in the war (see Supplemental Sites), but the Continental Congress and Gen. Washington initially rejected the prospect. Why? Why did they change their minds, and what policies of recruitment did they adopt? The process is apparent in these excerpts from six documents spanning 1776 to 1781. (3 pp., Library of Congress.)

  • Predicting Britain's response to the U.S. alliance with France PDF file
  • Predicting Britain's response to the U.S. alliance with France: selections from negotiators' letters, 1778. Defining the "turning point" of a war is a valuable exercise in military reasoning if one acknowledges that, in truth, there may be no single event that turned everything on its head. Identifying a transition period, however, yields more insight into the trajectory of a war. For the American Revolution, this period centered on the successful conclusion of an alliance between France and the United States in February 1778, news of which sent Britain into a tailspin of alarmed response. The American diplomats who negotiated the treaty—Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee—triumphantly predicted the surge in military strength, national morale, and British anxiety that would result from their momentous achievement. In their letters of February 1778, they also warned Congress not to be deceived by a likely reconciliation proposal from Britain. Why were they so adamant? What consequences did they predict? (3 pp.)

  • Requesting state aid for the army: an appeal from Gen. Washington, 1780. With the onset of war in 1775, the Continental Congress had expected to fund the war through taxes, but it was denied that power in the Articles of Confederation, implemented in 1777. Instead it continually requested funds and provisions from the states, and the inevitable shortages were soon desperate. In late May 1780, Washington wrote his trusted colleague Joseph Reed, then the governor of Pennsylvania, to plead for "two essential articles": flour and wagons. "Indeed I have almost ceased to hope," admitted Washington in his carefully constructed letter that, with the pleas of others including Lafayette, led the state assembly to give the governor unprecedented power to draft men and provisions. What made Washington's plea so forceful? Why would a Commander in Chief need such rhetorical skill? (2 pp., Library of Congress.)

  • Announcing the treason of Benedict Arnold: Washington's statement to the army, 1780. Desertions were common during the war, mutinies rare, and treason by military officers unknown—until Benedict Arnold made his infamous attempt in 1780 to turn over the fort of West Point to the British. Word of the plot spread quickly, but Washington as Commander in Chief had to address his troops about Arnold's betrayal in a form that would empower rather than demoralize them. This he did in a "General Orders" memorandum of 26 September 1780, three days after the plot was discovered and Arnold escaped arrest. How and why did Washington construct his announcement to use such words as happy, congratulating, manly, and bright? How would troops respond to the announcement being read aloud? (2 pp., Library of Congress.)

Discussion Questions

  1. From the five sets of documents, what overall impression do you get of the decision-making challenges encountered during the Revolution?
  2. How did decision-makers deal with unknown or partially understood factors?
  3. When resolute in a decision, how did they express their convictions to the decision-makers above them, or to the implementers below them?
  4. How was U.S. military policy debated, formulated, and implemented during the war, as evidenced in these documents?
Frontier Indian policy_______
  1. What strategy was offered by the Special Committee for Indian Affairs for stopping the "hostile invasions of our enemies" on the frontier? Was it primarily offensive or defensive?
  2. What policies did it recommend for dealing with friendly Indians and with Continental soldiers who antagonized the Indians?
  3. How and why did their efforts backfire, according to the 1778 War Board report?
  4. What policy was pursued after this failure? Why?
  5. Conduct research on the offensive against the New York Senecas in 1778 ("Sullivan's Campaign") as recommended by the War Board. How did the offensive effect the overall Indian strategy of the war? (See the Mary Jemison narrative in #7: Living the War.)
Slave recruitment_______
  1. How did the presence of hundreds of thousands of enslaved blacks in the southern states complicate Congress's military strategy in the south? How did Congress deal with these complications?
  2. Why did Congress consider recruiting slaves into the army? What were Washington's reservations?
  3. Would the slaves be organized in segregated or integrated units? What would they receive for their service during and after the war?
  4. Conduct research to compare the service of enslaved blacks in British and Continental forces during the war, and the postwar consequences of their service. (See the narratives by Boyrereau Brinch and Boston King in #6: Fighting the War.)
Treaty of Alliance with France_______
  1. What did Franklin and the other American negotiators predict would result from the alliance with France? How were their letters cautionary as well as triumphant?
  2. What responses from Britain did they predict? How did Britain respond?
  3. What congressional response did Franklin and the other negotiators insist was the only reasonable response to a reconciliation proposal from Britain? Why were they so adamant?
  4. Conduct research on the negotiations with France before the final treaties of February 1778. What made France officially commit to the American cause? How have historians evaluated the significance of the alliance to American victory? (See the British satirical rebuses on the alliance in #8: Losing the War, and Supplemental Sites for the text of the alliance.)
Appeal for state aid to the Continental Army_______
  1. How did Washington structure his 1780 letter to the governor of Pennsylvania? Briefly list the arguments in each paragraph to identify Washington's line of reasoning (and persuasion).
  2. How did he balance pleading and persuasion, foreboding and optimism, and state pride and national honor? How did he appeal to both duty and friendship?
  3. How and why did he refute others' optimistic judgments about the strengths of France and Spain and the weaknesses of Britain? Was he right?
  4. What dire consequences did he predict if aid were not forthcoming?
  5. Specifically, what "two essential articles" did Washington request from Reed?
  6. Would placing the specific request at the beginning of the letter have changed its impact? Would it have improved or hurt the letter, in your opinion?
  7. Conduct research to determine why Washington was dependent on voluntary state aid to the military effort. How did Congress deal with the unpredictable supply of money and provisions? (See Washington's correspondence and the military broadsides in #3: Leading the War.)
Treason of Benedict Arnold_______
  1. How did Washington construct his official statement on Arnold's treason to empower rather than demoralize his troops?
  2. How would troops respond to the announcement being read aloud by their commanders?
  3. Do you agree with Washington's decision to make an official statement to the troops on Arnold's betrayal? Why or why not?
  4. Conduct research on the consequences of Arnold's betrayal to public and military morale in late 1780 and early 1781. How was his treason portrayed? (See the cartoon depicting an anti-Arnold parade in #5: Reporting the War.)

Framing Questions

  • How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
  • How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
  • How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
  • Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?


Pacifying Indians on the frontier
Recruiting enslaved blacks into the army
Predicting Britain's response to the alliance with France
Appealing for state aid to the army
Announcing Benedict Arnold's treason
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Supplemental Sites

History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York) Africans in America (PBS) Revolutionary North Carolina (LearnNC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Treaty of Alliance with France, February 1778 French participation in the War for Independence, overview (Library of Congress & the Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Supplying Washington's Army, extensive overview (U.S. Army)

Benedict Arnold, overview (Wikipedia)

Benedict Arnold's "To the Inhabitants of America," letter (excerpts), The London Chronicle, 7 Oct. 1780, reprinted in the [New York] Royal Gazette, 11 Oct. 1780 (Wikisource)

The American Revolution: 1763-1783, primary documents from The Papers of George Washington (Library of Congress) Curriculum Unit: The American War for Independence (EDSITEment, NEH) "Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

– Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, oil on canvas, 1778 (detail). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931, 32.100.132. Reproduced by permission.
– Portrait of Gov. Joseph Reed by Charles Willson Peale, oil on canvas, ca. 1783-1785. Reproduced by permission of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee.
– Portrait of Joseph Brant (Thayendenagea), Mohawk leader, hand-colored lithograph titled "Thayendanega, The Great Captain of the Six Nations," in Thomas McKenney and James Hall, History of the Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia: E.C. Biddle, 1836–1844). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections, Digital ID# us0025_01.
– Portrait of Gen. George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, portrait miniature, watercolor on ivory, 1776. Reproduced by permission of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

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