Top 10 Battles of the Revolutionary War
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?
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.”
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.”
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…”
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.”
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.”
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”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
 “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.
 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.