Top 10 Battles of the Revolutionary War

yorktown

The outcome of a war depends on far more than individual battles, but the battles are compelling to study; everyone has a favorite. The impacts of each one are numerous, and we can pontificate endless “what if” scenarios regarding the outcomes. There were, nonetheless, several battles that changed the momentum of the American Revolution – battles that stopped campaigns and caused changes in strategy. Although the outcome of every battle influenced subsequent events, only a few completely changed the momentum of a campaign or of the war itself. For a top ten list of game-changing battles, I first limited the scope to land battles fought on the North American continent. Then I considered whether the outcome of that battle changed the momentum of what was going on at the time. For example, the Battle of Brandywine was a momentous fight, but if the battle hadn’t occurred at all the overall result of the Philadelphia campaign would probably have been more or less the same; and, because the British won, they sustained momentum that they already had. An American victory at Brandywine would’ve been a game-changer – but that didn’t happen. In some cases it’s difficult to isolate battles from campaigns – Yorktown being a fine example – so I’ve mingled the two a bit. Here’s my list: some famous, some not so famous, but each one an event that shifted momentum from one side to the other and shaped the overall conduct of the war. Which battles would make your list? lexingtonconcord

1. Lexington and Concord, April 1775

Although more a series of skirmishes than a pitched battle, this clash of arms was the result of tensions that had built over a long period and changed the conflict from politics and social unrest to open warfare. “Ever since the 19th, we have been kept in constant alarm; all Officers order’d to lay at their barracks.”[1]
bunkerhill

2. Bunker Hill, June 1775

This costly British victory helped shape the early course of the war by proving that intimidating force alone would not bring about victory. It also proved that there was no going back: the war would be a long one with no immediate diplomatic solution. “I believe the regulars will hardly venture out, for they must lose a vast many men if they should, and they cannot afford to purchase every inch of ground as they did at Charlestown.”[2]
quebec

3. Quebec, December 1775

A series of American victories along the waterways from Lake Champlain into Canada ended at Quebec. Had Americans seized the city, the entire northern theater of the war would have been different. “A heterogeneal concatenation of the most peculiar and unparalleled rebuffs and sufferings that are perhaps to be found in the annals of any nation…”[3]
charleston

4. Charleston, June 1776

Often disregarded as a minor action, the British failure to take this major seaport forced the war’s focus to be primarily in the north for the next several years. “Nothing, therefore, was now left for us to do but to lament that the blood of brave and gallant men had been so fruitlessly spilt.”[4]
trenton

5. Trenton, December 1776

The British army’s dramatic success in New York and New Jersey in 1776 was, arguably, predictable given its overwhelming size and skill. The sudden defeat at Trenton and the ten days of chaos that followed was not expected, and preserved American military will. “It is now announced in our general orders, to our inexpressible joy and satisfaction, that the scene is in some degree changed, the fortune of war is reversed, and Providence has been pleased to crown the efforts of our commander-in-chief with a splendid victory.”[5]
saratoga

6. Saratoga, October 1777

It wasn’t so much any single battle but the failure of the British campaign from the north that made this the war’s most significant military turning point. The surrender of a British army encouraged France to openly join the conflict. “Thus ended all our hopes of victory, honour, glory &c &c &c”[6]
rhodeisland

7. Rhode Island, August 1778

This failed American campaign, often overlooked as insignificant, not only stopped American military momentum gained from Saratoga and the recovery of Philadelphia, it showed that alliance with France would not bring a speedy end to the war. The northern theater remained in a stalemate for the rest of the war. “There never was a greater spirit seen in America for the expedition, and greater disappointment when Mr. Frenchman left us.”[7]
kingsmountain

8. Kings Mountain, October 1780

The annihilation of loyalist militia on the South Carolina frontier forced the British to revise their southern strategy and demonstrated that their overextended forces could be defeated in detail. “The destruction of Ferguson and his corps marked the period and the extent of the first expedition into North Carolina… the total ruin of his militia presented a gloomy prospect at the commencement of the campaign.”[8]
cowpens

9. Cowpens, January 1781

This sudden defeat of a substantial British force stopped British offensive momentum in the south and renewed the spirits of American forces, initiating the campaign that brought the war to an end. “I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarleton… & I have given him a devil of a whipping.”[9]
yorktown

10. Yorktown, October 1781

Not a pitched battle but a protracted siege that ended in the surrender of a substantial British army, this operation was the zenith of French-American cooperation and the end of major British military operations in America. “The annals of history do not exhibit a more important period than the present.”[10]


[1] John Barker, The British in Boston, being the Diary of Lieutenant John Barker of the King’s Own Regiment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924), 38.
[2] “Another Account of the late Action at Bunker’s Hill”, Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), 26 August 1775, in Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolution: Before it was History it was News (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2012), 150.
[3] Isaac Senter, in Kenneth Roberts, March to Quebec (Camden, ME: Down East Books, nd), 241.
[4] Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1854), 35.
[5] James Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution (Hartford, CT: Hurlbut, Williams & Co., 1862), 69.
[6] William Digby, The British Invasion from the North. The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776-1777, with the Journal of Lieut. William Digby of the 53d, or Shropshire Regiment of Foot. Munsell’s Historical Series No. 16 (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 322.
[7] G. Williams to Timothy Pickering, 12 September 1778, in Christian M. McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012), 207.
[8] Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North Carolina (London: T. Cadell, 1787), 166.
[9] Daniel Morgan to William Snickers, 26 January 1781, quoted in Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1.
[10] Glasgow Mercury, 22 November 1781, in Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolution: Before it was History it was News (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2012),, 337.
Don N. Hagist

Don N. Hagist, editor of Journal of the American Revolution, is an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers (http://redcoat76.blogspot.com) and has published a number of articles in academic journals. His books, British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Ballindalloch Press, 2004), General Orders: Rhode Island (Heritage Books, 2001) and Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls (Ballindalloch Press, 2008) are available from http://revolutionaryimprints.com. Don works as an engineer for a major electronics company in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists. He can be contacted at dhagist@cox.net.

23 Comments

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    steven paul mark

    I’d like to know your reason for omitting the Battle of Long Island/Brooklyn. After the successful Siege of Boston Washington saw ‘NYC’ as the next major conflict. Of course, he was correct, lost the battle and had to retreat, retreat and retreat. But for that loss and the eventual trek through NJ into PA, there would have been no Trenton. If ‘turning point’ is the thesis you need Long Island’s loss stuck in between Boston and Trenton.

    • Reply September 17, 2013

      Todd Andrlik

      I’d also put my vote behind NYC’s addition to the list; however, I’d be inclined to include it more for the Continental Army’s lessons learned than for serving as a prelude to Trenton.

    • Reply September 17, 2013

      Don N. Hagist

      Per my longer comment below, I view the British campaign as having opened when they arrived in New York harbor with overwhelming force. While battles like Brooklyn and others were necessary for them to achieve victory, they had the initiative from the moment they arrived in the area and no battle took it away from them. This doesn’t mean the battle wasn’t important, only that it didn’t change initiative from one side to the other.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    John Furfari

    I would add the Battle of Fort Mercer. Although a footnote to the Philadelphia Campaign, the American victory over a superior Hessian force in defense of the fort stemmed the tide of American defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown. The overwhelming victory garnished public confidence which was deteriorating throughout the region after the fall of Philadelphia and provided an additional morale boost to an American army embarking on a winter at Valley Forge.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    J. L. Bell

    No Brooklyn? No Brandywine? WIth this list, one wouldn’t know that the royal forces entered a nominally independent nation and quickly took over its second-largest city, then a year later took over its capital. That’s gotta hurt.

    What about the British military’s successful siege of Charleston? That seems like a bigger turning-point than the first, unsuccessful siege in 1776. What about Camden?

    Philosophically, this list seems to be based on the idea that British military success was a given so British military victories were less often “turning-points” than American ones. But between every two shifts of momentum to the Continentals, there had to be a shift back to the British, right?

    • Reply September 17, 2013

      Todd Andrlik

      I think Brooklyn, Brandywine, Charleston, Camden and Guilford Courthouse were all tied for No. 11.

    • Reply September 17, 2013

      Don N. Hagist

      The point about momentum shifts is well taken, but the British, in general, obtained momentum by initiating campaigns rather than by winning individual battles. We could argue, for example, that the Philadelphia campaign would’ve had the same outcome if the battle of Brandywine had never happened. This line of reasoning is also what puts Rhode Island on the list; in that case, an American victory was almost a given, but did not occur. In general, the battles on this list are the ones where the outcome was startling and unexpected given the forces involved and the side that was already on the offensive.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Joe Gadbois

    This is exciting news because my great-great-great-great grandfather Captain Clement Gosselin of the 2nd Canadian Regiment was involved in 2 out of the 10 – Quebec and Yorktown! 20% – not bad for a French-Canadian!

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Scott Ward

    Curious as to why Guildford Courthouse isn’t mentioned (though I see that it was in an 11th place tie). It was pivotal to success at Yorktown and one of the bloodiest battles fought… even if the outcome is often debated. It seems to regularly be overlooked by historians…

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Don N. Hagist

    These battles (or in a few cases, non-battles) were chosen because they CHANGED the course of a campaign that was already in progress – the side that had the initiative lost it because of the outcome. Battles aren’t on this list is because they didn’t CHANGE the momentum of the campaign that they were part of.

    Brooklyn (Long Island), for example, had an (arguably) predictable outcome. Momentum favored the British from the time they arrived in New York harbor with overwhelming force. Individual battles, including Long Island, were necessary to effect that goal, but given the forces involved the outcome of the campaign was reasonably predictable: the British achieved all of their geographic objectives, all the way to the Delaware River.

    The same can be said for Brandywine – the British initiated a campaign to take Philadelphia, and the campaign was successful regardless of the individual battles that occurred on the way. And the same again for the 1780 siege of Charleston – the British took the initiative by deciding to take the city, and were completely successful.

    Camden and Guilford Courthouse are tougher to classify in this way. It’s hard to say who had the initiative at Camden; an American victory may have been a game changer, but the American loss simply allowed the British to continue with a plan they’d already set in motion. Guilford Courthouse (arguably) took the offensive capability out of Cornwallis’s army, but the extent to which it singularly caused the move to Yorktown is debatable.

    Many other battles were important in many ways, but these ten (in my view) swung the initiative from one side to the other, rather than allowing one side to retain initiative.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    George Evans

    When you listed Charleston, I thought you’d mean 1780 not 1776.
    I put Monmouth Court House on the list as Clinton didn’t do much out of NYC after that. Replacing Rhode Island which was pretty much a side-show.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    John L. Smith

    What? No “Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge”? That Patriot-Scottish/Loyalist skirmish made the British abandon the southern colonies until 1780. Then, forgetting what they’d learned, again thought that Loyalist support was stronger down there than it really was.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Stephen Estopinal

    Nothing said about expelling the British from Baton Rouge, Mobile, Pensacola and securing the Mississippi River Valley?

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    John Rees

    Excellent way to start a good discussion of the subject. Your list is nicely reasoned, should make readers think deeply on the matter, and was destined to encourage rebuttal. Kudos.

  • Reply September 17, 2013

    Wayne Lynch

    I would have said Guilford instead of Cowpens. Cowpens was a wonderful victory and, like all victories, gave the Patriots a nice morale lift. However, Cornwallis didn’t really lose the initiative until after Guilford. Up to that point, the CA was on the run. Even at Cowpens, the real question after the battle was whether Morgan could get away without losing the prisoners (and perhaps his own). It was more like a biting Cornwallis in the ass while Guilford CH actually changed the initiative and sent Cornwallis to the safety of Wilmington to regroup and come up with plan B.

  • Reply September 18, 2013

    Mark

    Cowpens destroyed the aura of invincibility around Tarleton, but it did not fatally damage Cornwallis’ army, it was Guilford Courthouse that did it.

    • Reply September 18, 2013

      wayne Lynch

      Mark, the aura of invincibility around Tarleton had already been taken care of 2 months earlier at Blackstock’s Plantation. Probably Sumter’s best battle. He later believed that Morgan actually got his ideas for Cowpens from Sumter’s setup at Blackstock’s where ‘poor Money’ was killed trying to lead an assault against Elijah Clark and the Georgians.

      • Reply September 18, 2013

        Mark

        Good point Tarleton was beaten at Blackstock, but putting it into the context of the time, he was still expected to win at Cowpens, the fact that he lost was an upset. On being told the outcome Cornwallis supposedly leaned on his sword until it snapped, although that might be anger at Tarleton’s immaturity!

  • Reply September 18, 2013

    Mark

    The Siege of Savannah in 1779 probably would have been fatal for the British had they lost it, they probably wouldn’t have been able to carry out the southern campaign the year later. When he heard the news of the battle, Henry Clinton wrote; “I think that this is the greatest event that has happened the whole war”.

  • Reply September 18, 2013

    Steve Baule

    I have to say that Clark’s Western Campaign which solidified American claims to the Old Northwest was a critical point in the war. Had Kaskaskia not been taken (no battle) or Vincennes not have been captured by Clark, Canada would reach much farther south today. The Ohio River would be the northern boundary of the midwest.

  • Reply September 20, 2013

    Sean Kelleher

    I would echo John Rees comments.

    I happy to see Saratoga and agree with Bunker Hill and Lexington.

    I think the Americans had little chance of winning and holding on to Quebec – but who would have ever thought they would do so well in that battle and yet lose.

    A very good list.

  • Reply October 21, 2013

    John Robertson

  • […] book as a jumping off point to map some of the major battles of the Revolutionary War. I found a list of ten major battles of the war, and we had fun mapping […]

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