The 25 Deadliest Battles of the Revolutionary War

Xavier della Gatta's Battle of Paoli painting (1782). Source: American Revolution Center Collection

Name calling, fearing mongering and demonizing the enemy were all on the propaganda menu during the American Revolution. Once hostilities commenced, another game played a significant role in the war for mind control. A game of numbers.

Simply inflating the size of your enemy’s forces on paper and deflating your own helped to magnify victory or downplay defeat. And in the case of reporting casualties, reducing your own estimates and increasing your enemies had a similar result. Examples are widespread.

By the end of September 1776, in London and throughout Europe, many people knew that 3,500 American rebels were killed at the Battle of Long Island with more than 1,000 taken prisoner. The British press were busy printing official and unofficial accounts that were fresh off the ships from New York. In his report to Lord George Germain, General William Howe claimed “their loss is computed to be about 3,300 killed, wounded, prisoners, and drowned.” However, actual figures are closer to 1000 prisoners and about 200 killed or wounded.[i]

On the morning of September 16, 1780, New Englanders reading the Providence Gazette knew that 3,000 American men were led by Major General Horatio Gates into a bloody battle against General Charles Cornwallis, who commanded a superior British force of 4,200 regulars and “refugees.”  While the precise strength of the American army at the Battle of Camden remains unknown today, the best estimate is 4,100. And Cornwallis’s numbers were closer to 2,200; far from superior on that South Carolina battlefield.[ii]

In early 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene eagerly opened Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s after-action report about the Battle of Cowpens and read that Morgan fought with only 800 men. But his force numbered at least 1,500.[iii]

Following the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis reported that Greene’s army “exceeded 7000 men” when it likely numbered in the 4,000 to 4,400 range. Greene’s adjunct general Otho H. Williams compiled a list of American casualties at Guilford Courthouse that fell short by about 20 percent.[iv]

In a slight twist on the numbers game, early on February 25, 1777, readers of the London Chronicle discovered that many of George Washington’s 10,000 men were deserting after the Battle of Trenton. Washington actually had about 5,000 men but had spies feeding the British the much higher figure.[v]

Thanks to the numbers game, it can be difficult for modern historians to accurately account for battlefield forces and casualties. One of the most comprehensive sources of casualty figures is Howard Peckham’s The Toll of Independence (The University of Chicago Press, 1974). Despite its age and shortage of British totals, historians still often point to this volume for American loss data.

Based on records for 1,331 military and 218 naval engagements, Peckham concludes that 7,174 were killed and 8,241 were wounded during the eight-year war.[vi]

Beyond these summaries, Peckham’s book is loaded with figures that would make any statistician drool and, of course, many historians debate.  With such a resource at my fingertips, I thought it would be interesting to list the Revolutionary War’s 25 deadliest battles, looking at engagements both on land and at sea. After all, the Revolutionary War is second only to the Civil War in deaths relative to population.[vii] This list is based exclusively on Peckham’s figures of Americans killed and wounded, which are totaled in (parentheses) and sorted in order of most killed and wounded to least. Then, for perspective, I included British killed and wounded totals from multiple sources, which are in {braces} and cited to their respective sources.

  1. Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780 (1050 Americans killed and wounded) {314 British killed and wounded[viii]}
    British forces routed American forces.
  2. Battle of Germantown, October 4, 1777 (652) {519[ix]}
    Washington’s 11,000 troops in divided columns did not proceed uniformly; general retreat.
  3. Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777 (600) {581[x]}
    All day battle that ended in American retreat.
  4. Battle of Eutaw Springs, September 8, 1781 (513) {382[xi]}
    About 2,200 Continentals and militia attacked camp of 2,000 British regulars and Loyalists.
  5. Siege of Savannah, September 16-October 20, 1779 (457) {103[xii]}
    Franco-American besieging forces launched failed attack on British fortification.
  6. Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 (411) {1054[xiii]}
    British overrun American fortifications.
  7. Battle of Flamborough Head, September 23, 1779 (302) {117[xiv]}
    John Paul Jones’s famous naval battle.
  8. USS Randolph vs HMS Yarmouth, March 6, 1778 (301) {16[xv]}
    Randolph and four ships engage Yarmouth. Randolph blew up, killing all but four of its crew.
  9. Battle of Paoli, September 20, 1777 (300) {11[xvi]}
    British surprise attack at night.
  10. Battle of Freeman’s Farm, September 19, 1777 (280) {600[xvii]}
    Burgoyne moved on Gates’s fortified position and met hot resistance.
  11. Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778 (267) {295[xviii]}
    Washington’s advance division caught up with enemy, retreating American troops reformed.
  12. Battle of Waxhaws, May 29, 1780 (263) {17[xix]}
    Banastre Tarleton’s Legion attacks Continental infantry and cavalry; surrender gone wrong.
  13. Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15, 1781 (261) {506[xx]}
    Cornwallis held battlefield, but lost a third of his army.
  14. Battle of Wyoming, July 3, 1778 (227) {11[xxi]}
    American forces leave Forty Fort to attack invading force; close combat with Indian raiders.
  15. Siege of Charleston, March 29-May 12, 1780 (227) {265[xxii]}
    Benjamin Lincoln surrendered town and forts after one-month siege.
  16. Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776 (200) {367[xxiii]}
    Beginning of successful British campaign to capture New York.
  17. Battle of Ramsour’s Mill, June 20, 1780 (170) {170[xxiv]}
    Outnumbered Patriot militia defeat Loyalist militia.
  18. Battle of Rhode Island, August 29, 1778 (167) {248[xxv]}
    Franco-American forces laid siege to British in Newport, but abandoned siege.
  19. Battle of Fort Washington, November 16, 1776 (154) {458[xxvi]}
    American garrison of several thousand surrendered.
  20. Battle of White Plains, October 28, 1776 (150) {229[xxvii]}
    Howe’s troops drive Washington’s troops from high ground.
  21. Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, October 6, 1777 (150) {183[xxviii]}
    British forces capture two American-held forts in highlands of Hudson River valley.
  22. Battle of Brier Creek, March 3, 1779 (150) {16[xxix]}
    Large Patriot force attacked by surprise.
  23. Battle of Fishing Creek, August 18, 1780 (150) {16[xxx]}
    Tarleton surprises Thomas Sumter’s militia company.
  24. Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777 (147) {93[xxxi]}
    Loyalists and Indians ambush 800 Patriot militia and Indians.
  25. Battle of Stono Ferry, June 20, 1779 (147) {119[xxxii]}
    Rear guard of retreating British expedition hold off assault by Patriot militia.

Of these 25 battles, only Ramsour’s Mill is considered a decisive American victory. The vast majority are decisive British victories with a handful of debated draws. Assuming these casualty figures are accurate, or close to it, this demonstrates that killed and wounded seldom have any bearing on the outcome of the battle.

Don’t see your favorite battle on the list? Here are a few more famous battles and how they stack up using Peckham’s American casualty numbers in (parentheses).

  • Battle of Groton Heights, September 6, 1781 (145)
  • Battle of Bemis Heights, October 7, 1777 (130)
  • Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, April 25, 1781 (126)
  • Battle of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775 (90)
  • Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780 (90)
  • Siege of Yorktown, September 28-October 19, 1781 (90)
  • Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781 (72)
  • Battle of Springfield, June 23, 1780 (64)
  • Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 (43)
  • Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1777 (12)

Based on Peckham’s casualty figures:

  • Camden comprises nearly 37 percent of all the Americans killed and wounded during military engagements in 1780.
  • Bunker Hill comprises 54 percent of all the Americans killed and wounded during military engagements in 1775.
  • Germantown and Brandywine, combined, account for 35 percent of all Americans killed and wounded during military engagements in 1777.

Interestingly, the 25 deadliest battles total 7,696 Americans killed and wounded, which accounts for 50 percent of all Americans killed and wounded during the entire eight-year war (using Peckham’s Americans killed/wounded war total of 15,415). That means that the other 50 percent, or 7,719 Americans, were killed and wounded during the remaining 1,524 military and naval engagements! So, the Revolutionary War’s 80-20 rule was closer to a 50-2 rule with nearly 50% of the American killed and wounded casualties occurring in 1.6 percent of the military and naval engagements.

Of course, this is all based on a numbers game and new casualty sources are regularly added and subtracted. As Peckham summarized, “If we cannot offer the final word on casualties of the American Revolution, we hope that we can at least elevate the discussion of those losses by the addition of figures that have heretofore been unknown or unavailable.”

EDITOR NOTE: To focus on the “deadliest battles,” casualties were limited to killed and wounded, but missing and captured could increase the totals or raise additional questions. As demonstrated in the introduction, war casualty figures during the Revolutionary War were often used as propaganda. Casualty data continues to be disputed and debated today. As such, we welcome all arguments against Peckham’s American casualty numbers to unfold in the comments below.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Xavier della Gatta’s Battle of Paoli painting (1782). Source: American Revolution Center Collection]

 


[i] Howe to Germain reports Americans suffered 3,300 killed, wounded, prisoners and drowned as published in London Gazette Extraordinary, September 10, 1776. The London Chronicle, October 10, 1776, reports that “An express is arrived from Lord Howe, giving an account that on Aug. 22, he had obtained possession of Long Island; with the [British] loss only of fifty men killed, and 200 slightly wounded. Of the Provincials 3500 were killed upon the spot, and above 1000 taken prisoners.” For context on the newspaper reporting, see Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2012), 202-207. According to Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York (New York: Walker & Company, 2002), 153:
Several modern authorities agree about the actual American casualties. Schecter points to Henry Phelps Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn (1878), pt. 1:202-6, which argues that Washington’s figure of 1,000 captured and killed was correct. Schecter also points to Howard Peckham, The Toll of Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 22, which lists 1097 captured and 200 killed; and Eric Manders, Battle of Long Island, in appendix E, pp. 62-63, which estimates a total of 800 to 900 captured and killed. Charles Stevenson and Irene Wilson, The Battle of Long Island, The Battle of Brooklyn, on p. 16 support Johnston’s numbers for those captured as well as for the total number of Americans killed and wounded.

[ii] Providence Gazette, September 16, 1780. Today’s best estimates are based on Jim Piecuch’s essay and context in Reporting the Revolutionary War, 286-287. For more on Camden, see John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (John Wiley and Sons, 1997).

[iii] Morgan to Greene, New-Jersey Gazette (Trenton), February 14, 1781. Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War, 304. For more on Cowpens, see Lawrence Babits, A Devil of a Whipping (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[iv] British casualty report in London Chronicle, June 7, 1781. Greene’s after-action report and Williams’s list of casualties appear in Independent Chronicle, April 19, 1781. For context, see Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War, 312. For more on Guilford Courthouse, see Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[v] London Chronicle, February 25, 1777. For context, see Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War, 210.

[vi] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 130.

[vii] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 132-133. Peckham states “The grand total of the killed and died in service (25,674) represents 0.9 percent of the American population of 2,781,000 white and black in 1780… the Civil War, nearly 1.6 percent of the population… More arresting would be the percentage of those who lost their lives in relation to the total number who bore arms, but as yet we have no figure for the latter. Utilizing a tentative guess of 200,000 men in service at one time or another, the percentage of deaths in the Revolution is 12.5 percent of the participants. This loss is very close to the almost 13 percent suffered by Union troops in our bloodiest war.”

[viii] Mark Mayo Boatner, Cassell’s Biographical Dictionary of the American War of Independence, 1763-1783 (London: Cassell and Company, 1966), 169.

[ix] Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. II: Germantown and the Roads to Valley Forge (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006), 128.

[x] Thomas J. McGuire, The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. I: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006), 269.

[xi] Mark Mayo Boatner, Cassell’s Biographical Dictionary of the American War of Independence, 1763-1783 (London: Cassell and Company, 1966), 355.

[xii] David Marley, Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to the Present (1998), 323. Though the French casualties aren’t included with the American numbers, Peckham states: “The most reliable figures seem to be 183 killed and 454 wounded among the French. There is also great variation in the American count.”

[xiii] Richard Frothingham, Jr., History of the Siege of Boston and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Second Edition (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 194.

[xiv] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 122.

[xv] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 118.

[xvi] Thomas J. McGuire, Battle of Paoli (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000), 132.

[xvii] Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 368-369.

[xviii] London Gazette Extraordinary, August 24, 1778. In the London Gazette issue, Henry Clinton reported 65 killed, 59 dead of fatigue, 170 wounded and 64 missing. Clinton’s original report is in the Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library. The London Gazette is the official Crown newspaper, published by authority, and commonly included British officer reports. See also New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, July 6, 1778. Also, Brendan Morrissey, Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, 2004), 76. Peckham, The Toll of Independence, states “Clinton reported 147 killed, 170 wounded, and 64 missing, but evidently did not count the Germans, as American burial parties buried 251 British and Germans.” Peckham’s and Clinton’s numbers match on wounded and missing, but Peckham lists a higher number of killed. Even when you combine the killed and dead of fatigue from Clinton’s report, the total is 124, or 23 fewer than Clinton’s report. For further examination, I’d recommend comparing Clinton’s original report at Clements Library to see if the London Gazette made any edits to his figures. And even though Peckham argues that Clinton “evidently did not count the Germans,” the London Gazette does include casualty figures for “Total British” and “Total German,” which appears to contradict Peckham. As to be expected, Clinton’s figures are also disputed with a much great variance based on American estimates of British casualties such as: David G. Martin, The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777-July 1778 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1993), 232-233. Martin lists 65-304 British killed and 170-770 wounded, suggesting that the British casualty total could be as high as 1074. This disparity with the official report supports the thesis of this article. There is a good discussion in Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkings, Monmouth House: The Battle that Made the American Army (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2010), 222-223.

[xix] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 71.

[xx] John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (John Wiley and Sons, 1997) 380.

[xxi] Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse University Press, 1972).

[xxii] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 70. American casualty numbers reflect what Peckham stated only for May 12, 1780. If all of Peckham’s Charleston-area actions are included from March 29 to May 12, the American casualty number jumps to 305.

[xxiii] Peckham, The Toll of Independence, 22. See note 1 for more detail.

[xxiv] David Lee Russell, The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies (McFarland, 2000), 154.

[xxv] Mark Mayo Boatner, Cassell’s Biographical Dictionary of the American War of Independence, 1763-1783 (London: Cassell and Company, 1966), 793.

[xxvi] Richard Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (Holt Paperbacks, 1999), 130.

[xxvii] Henry Barton Dawson, Westchester County, New York in the American Revolution (Morrisania, NY: Self-published, 1886), 270.

[xxviii] Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 77.

[xxix] David K. Wilson, The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775-1780 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 96.

[xxx] John Pancake, This Destructive War (University of Alabama Press, 1985), 107.

[xxxi] Gavin K. Watt, Rebellion in the Mohawk Valley: The St. Leger Expedition of 1777 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2002), 194.

[xxxii] Patrick O’Kelley, Nothing but Blood and Slaughter: Military Operations and Order of Battle of the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, Vol. 1, 1771-1779 (Booklocker, 2004), 296.

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5 Comments

  • Thanks, Todd, for a look at the stark reality of battle and a well-researched article. This article provides a lot of food for thought. I found it surprising that Monmouth is at 11 and Fort Montgomery is at 21 which got me thinking about more modern wars and discussions about acceptable casualty rates (memories of the Vietnam War). For example, Monmouth was one of the most populous battles and yet killed and wounded were far less than other battles fought with less combatants (2.5% killed and wounded ratio). Fort Montgomery/Fort Clinton was a smaller engagement with a 42% killed and wounded rate; Oriskany is listed at 24 with a 20% killed/wounded rate. There are as many explanations as to why a battle was casualty-laden as there are battles. (perhaps food for thought to another contributor). Whether rates are more important than gross casualty figures is debatable but for the unlucky combatant, his battle was the most dangerous.

  • Thanks, SPM. Yep, this is just one way to measure and order battles under a “deadliest” title, and certainly begs discussion. I intentionally avoided rates simply because I didn’t want to deal with two potentially skewed numbers. As you said, despite all the caveats, this information–presented collectively–is eyebrow raising and great food for thought.

  • The numbers always astonish me. Perhaps partly because I began my interest in American history were most American boys do – the Civil War (er, or 2nd American Civil War?). Casualty rates are another statistic that can unfortunately be manipulated to achieve some objective. However, Mr. Andrlik has presented them here without prejudice.
    That the North American continent as a whole had its fate determined over centuries by relatively so few in number amazes me from my 20th-21st century perspective.

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