Teaching the American Revolution with Simulations

Critical Thinking

March 12, 2020
by Ray Raphael Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

What most Americans know about the Revolutionary War they learned when they were in elementary or middle school. The curricular timing is fortunate in some ways, unfortunate in others. On the one hand, fifth or sixth graders are at the peak of their learning curve. They are delightfully curious, and they read and converse intelligently. Yet these youngsters have little worldly knowledge, and textbooks geared to their levelrely on simple narrative threads replete with abundant mini-biographies, giving students a sense that history is an amalgamation of the lives of memorable personalities.

There is another way: simulations. Much as Revolution re-enactors engage with history, students can enter the past more deeply by becomingthe people they study—not just the famous few, but a cross-section. During the Revolutionary War, people of every stripe navigated turbulent waters and helped shape the course of the nation. Whether a general or a private, male or female, free or enslaved, each became a player in a sweeping drama. Many decisions were made in groups, both indoors (town meetings, caucuses, conventions, congresses) and “out-of-doors,” as they said at the times, informal gatherings that protested authority or enforced popular will. Such venues are particularly adaptable to class simulations.

Yet simulations present a danger: might we be encouraging youngsters to make snap judgments based on limited information, or to think that they somehow know more than the real historical players? For reenactments to be more than affirmations of individual whim, we need to provide context: what was the issue, the problem to be solved? What were the existing realities that limited possibilities? With those in mind, what were the available options? For each option, how did people view the possibilities for a desired outcome? What were the potential dangers? By posing such questions, history in all its complexity comes alive. It is a convoluted, thorny business, yet still accessible on a personal level to students at this level.

Points of decision create teachable moments. Over the past few years, I have developed numerous inter-active simulations on the Founding Era for the Constitutional Sources Project (aka ConSource). The overall project is titled, “Choosing to Make a Nation.” Our task is to introduce students to historical protagonists who confronted momentous choices. We help students imagine, from a distant time, the hopes of these people, but also their constraints. With these protagonists, students explore available options. Having skin in the game, they will better understand whypeople acted as they did. They will think more deeply about the paths actually taken—how events ensued, the consequences of decisions, and the subsequent issues these created. Further, by exercising individual and group decision-making skills within political contexts, students prepare for civic life.

I summarize eleven simulations on the Revolutionary War below. Complete lesson plans appear on the ConSource.org website.

General Washington’s Council of War.
In September 1775, the newly formed Continental Army surrounded the British garrison in Boston. Three months earlier, when British forces tried to break out of the city by attacking Breed’s Hill (known since as the Battle of Bunker Hill), they suffered devastating losses. After that, neither side dared make a dramatic move. Frustrated with the military stalemate, the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief, George Washington, contemplated a direct assault on the city. Before making such a move, however, he consulted his Council of War. Students convene as that Council. They read selections of actual proceedings and consider key factors—numbers, geography, morale, and strategies. After weighing the options and coming to a decision, they are presented with the historical outcome: the Council advised against an assault, and Washington was swayed. Despite the top-down military chain of command, this was a republican army, unlike any other on the globe.

Starving Soldiers: Joseph Plumb Martin.
The winter camp at Morristown, New Jersey, in 1779-1780, was even harsher than that at Valley Forge two years earlier. Snowbound soldiers, without a morsel of food for four days at a stretch, were forced to eat their dogs. Now it is spring, but food is still short. How long can this go on? How can soldiers be expected to fight in such a state? Private Joseph Plumb Martin described their plight:

The men were now exasperated beyond endurance; they could not stand it any longer. They saw no alternative but to starve to death, or break up the army, give all up and go home. This was a hard matter for the soldiers to think upon. They were truly patriotic, they loved their country, and they had already suffered everything short of death in its cause; and now, after such extreme hardships to give up all was too much, but to starve to death was too much also. What was to be done? Here was the army starved and naked, and their country sitting still and expecting the army to do notable things while fainting from sheer starvation.

A number of privates from Connecticut are talking within their log hut. No officers are present. After assuming the identity of specific characters—age, occupation, family status, and remaining time of enlistment—students discuss their options. Should they continue to serve without complaint, register complaints with their officers, refuse to obey further orders unless conditions improve, mutiny, or desert? They are advised of possible consequences: thirty-nine lashes for desertion, possible execution for mutiny, and so on. “Remember,” students are told, “your own personal survival, and perhaps the fate of your country, might hang on your decision.”

A Farm Wife’s Struggles: Sarah Hodgkins
When Joseph Hodgkins, a Minuteman from Massachusetts, answered the Lexington Alarm in 1775, he left his wife Sarah at home with a six-week-old infant and two other small children. Joseph did not return after battles at Lexington and Concord, but, along with a multitude of soldiers, instead laid siege to Boston. In her husband’s absence, Sarah tended the children, mended the torn garments Joseph sent home, and performed myriad tasks that kept the farm intact. Originally, Joseph had told Sarah he would not reenlist when his term expired at the end of 1775. But when that time neared, he wavered: “If we Due not Exarte our selves in this gloris Cause our all is gon and we made slaves of for Ever.”
By reading the Hodgkins’ correspondence, students see that both husband and wife had to weigh public duty against personal needs. Over time, military sacrifices multiplied. Joseph did reenlist for another year, and toward the end of his duty he considered reenlisting for three more. Students are asked: If you were Sarah Hodgkins, what would you say to Joseph now? They can write letters to Joseph or discuss what they would say. The teacher then presents Sarah’s forthright response: “It will troble me very much if you Should ingage [enlist] again.” Joseph stayed in the army, fighting for his country. Sarah’s letters became more harsh, and Joseph finally came home, shortly before the end of his three-year enlistment.

Iroquois Council: Choosing Sides
Both Britain and the United States attempted to garner support from Native peoples. The class convenes as an Iroquois council in upstate New York in 1777, joined by a British emissary who has come with a lavish display of gifts and an American who can’t match the gifts but presents his case nonetheless. True to tradition, all Iroquois adults attend this council. Students assume the personas of young warriors or mothers or older chiefs, etc. Students are presented with relevant factors to consider—the numbers, strength, and allegiances of nearby white settlers; the decisions other Native nations have made; the effect of previous wars on the Iroquois people; the British promise that Native people west of the Appalachian Mountains can keep their land. Should they side with the British, side with the Americans, or attempt to stay neutral? The simulated Iroquois council makes its decisions. They then learn how each of the six Iroquois nations in reality fared after actually siding with the British or with the Americans.

Enslaved Americans: Seeking Freedom
When British vessels sailed up the Potomac River in 1781, men and women enslaved to George Washington considered whether or not to flee to British forces, hoping to be set free. In this lesson, each student takes on the persona of a particular Mount Vernon (home of George Washington) slave and considers whether to hazard an escape. Aware that one member in the class has been designated a slave informant, students deliberate secretly in small groups. To make calculated decisions, they consider information or rumors that did in fact circulate in slave quarters: the 1772 Sommersett decision against slavery in England; Lord Dunmore’s 1775 promise of freedom to slaves who joined the British cause; Gen. Henry Clinton’s 1779 proclamation that those who fled from patriot masters would find work with the British, although this time freedom was not actually promised. Students make strategic choices—they might have to leave children and older relatives behind; they might have seen recaptured slaves tortured; they hear that runaways who are captured are often sent to the dreaded West Indies. The lesson closes with a presentation of the historical outcome: seventeen enslaved men and women did in fact flee from Washington at that time.

Black Refugees: David George
After the war, 3,000 African Americans who aided the British were transported on ships from New York for Canada. This lesson features David George, a preacher whose detailed memoir appeared in a religious journal. Selections recount his harsh treatment as a slave, his repeated attempts to escape, and his eventual road to freedom. Once free, however, his trials were not over. In Canada he tells of a mob raiding his house and threatening bodily harm. Students are asked: Would you continue to preach in the face of such threats? They are then presented with the historical outcome: “I stayed and preached, and the next day they came a beat me with sticks, and drove me into the swamp.”
After moving to a different location, David George and his family faced additional adversity. Then, in 1791, George learned of Sierra Leone, where former slaves were encouraged to settle. Students are asked: Should David George and his family journey across the Atlantic to this distant land, not knowing what they might encounter there? The lesson concludes with the historic outcome: George and some 1,200 others made the journey. They had more opportunity in Sierra Leone, but Britain continued to control the new colony, and it was not quite the Promised Land some had envisioned.

Wartime Pacifists: Quakers
During the Revolutionary War, one of every thirty free Americans belonged to a religious sect (Quakers, Shakers, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, or Schwenkfelders) that opposed fighting in wars. In this simulation, students imagine they are Quakers who have been drafted to serve in the Continental Army. They learn that in the Revolutionary War, a person who was drafted could either join the army or pay for a substitute to serve in his place. This presents a quandary: will a Quaker be violating his religious beliefs if he pays for a substitute? Students confront this on multiple levels. First, what would they do as individuals? Next, what would the communities decide? And, finally, what does an individual do if his decision conflicts with that of his religious community? Having examined pacifism in the Revolutionary War, students will be better able to view the problems pacifists faced in other wars, as well as the problems that pacifists presented to wartime governments.

Oaths of Allegiance: Moravians and Andrew Giering
In this simulation, students play the role of Andrew Giering, a Moravian pacifist who refuses to take an oath of allegiance to Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary government. Students learn why the oath conflicts with Giering’s religious beliefs, but they also encounter the consequences of his refusal: imprisonment. While in jail his family struggles, but a Moravian leader urges him to hold firm. Students are asked: If you were Giering, would you now take the oath so you can get of jail and help your family, or would you stay true to your religious beliefs? Giering’s example personifies the recurring conflicts between deeply held religious beliefs and the demands of government. The lesson can be used as an unbiased introduction to the separation of church and state and to various contemporary issues that arise when interpreting that basic premise.

Retribution and a Civil War in the South: Thomas Brown
The Revolutionary War in the southern backcountry turned into a brutal civil war between patriots and loyalists. Each violent act spurred retribution, thereby escalating the conflict. In this lesson, students take on three roles. First, they are an angry group of patriots confronting Thomas Brown, a prominent loyalist. When Brown refuses to cease his opposition to the Revolution, how should they respond? After positing possible actions, they are presented with the historical outcome: Brown was partially scalped, tarred and feathered, and branded in the sole of his foot.
Next, they become Brown: how might he respond to such harsh treatment? Again, after considering options, they learn the historical outcome: Brown organized backcountry loyalists into a fighting force called the King’s Rangers, enlisted the support of Native Americans, and led many raids against patriots.
Finally, near the close of the war, Brown was captured, and this leads to the concluding simulation. Students are asked: If you were a relative of someone who had been killed by Brown’s Rangers, and Brown was held in captivity near you, would you try to confront him personally? The outcome: one woman tried to knife him, and then, having failed, issued a vitriolic verbal assault that students hear or read. By playing multiple roles and switching sides, students can feel how one violent act leads to the next—the powerful dynamic that feeds warfare and makes peaceful resolution increasingly difficult.

Retribution at the Highest Level: George Washington and Charles Asgill
Near the close of the war, a group of New York patriots captured and killed a loyalist named Philip White. Enraged loyalists quickly retaliated by hanging a patriot they held as prisoner, Joshua Huddy. General Washington was outraged at this vengeful killing of a helpless prisoner, who had been chosen at random. Unless those who killed Huddy were handed over to the patriots, he said, he would retaliate by taking the life of a prisoner whom the patriots held. Huddy’s killers were not delivered, so Washington made good on his pledge. The victim, chosen at random, would be Charles Asgill, a nineteen-year-old British captain who had surrendered at Yorktown. But did this young officer deserve to die for a crime in which he had played no part? Although many people, even patriots, pleaded that Asgill should not be killed, Washington held firm. Although he too was “exceedingly distressed” by the situation, military honor demanded retaliation. His decision was “purely of a Military nature,” Washington said.
But then Asgill himself made an impassioned appeal, as did his family. These “work too hard on my humanity,” Washington finally admitted, yet if he reversed himself now, he might appear weak. Students are asked to ponder Washington’s dilemma—if they were in his shoes, would they spare Asgill, despite the prior determination to even the score with Britain? Would that retreat set a bad example? The lesson concludes with the historical outcome: Washington dodged the issue by asking Congress to make the call, and Congress, bowing to pressure from France (Asgill’s mother was French), set the prisoner free. Through this lesson, students will see how the strange logic of retribution can ensnare even the most powerful leaders.

Parliament: Will Britain Continue the War after Yorktown?
Textbooks say that in October 1781, when Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered over 7,000 British soldiers at Yorktown, the war was over. This lesson opens with a question that most texts fail to ask: why didn’t Britain concede defeat four years earlier, when Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered a similar number at Saratoga? Students offer preliminary conjectures and are then presented with new and puzzling information. After its defeat at Yorktown, Britain still had some 40,000 solders—over five times the number that surrendered and almost four times as many as were in the Continental Army—in North America and in the Caribbean. These were stationed in Halifax, New York, Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, and the West Indies. The class finds these locations on the map.
So why didn’t Britain continue to fight? To answer that, students convene as the British Parliament late in 1781, after hearing the news from Yorktown. They are given background information. In 1777 Britain fought American rebels exclusively, but now France, Spain, and the Netherlands have joined the American cause and other European nations are providing aid to Britain’s enemies. The war is global, as students recognize when pinpointing on a world map other contested areas—the Caribbean, the North Sea, Gibraltar, Minorca, the Cape of Good Hope, India. Should Britain continue to devote military resources to suppressing the American rebellion, as King George III is still requesting? Hold on to the valuable ports they control in North America, but not try to conquer the continent? Give up on the United States altogether and focus on maintaining the rest of the British Empire? After voting as Parliament, students are presented with the historical outcome: Britain gave up the fight for America, but only after it had suffered losses elsewhere. This lesson encourages students to view the nation’s founding moment from a global perspective.

* * *

This concludes the Revolutionary War simulations. For students at secondary and college levels, Consource.org presents units on the Articles of Confederation (three lessons), the Declaration of Independence (three lessons), the Constitutional Convention (eight lessons), and the Constitution in Action—how folks in the Early Republic interpreted and implemented the Constitution (seven lessons). Simulations for this unit deal with the origin of the Bill of Rights, strict versus loose construction of the Constitution (the national bank controversy), whether the President or Congress shapes foreign policy, challenges to federal authority (the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions), and the emergence of political parties, culminating in the contested election of 1800. (Coming attraction: a “Road to Revolution” unit, geared again for elementary and middle school students, is still in the works.)

My favorite lesson places students at the First Federal Congress, when Thomas Tucker of South Carolina moved to grant citizens the right of the people to “instruct their representatives” within the First Amendment, along with the right to petition and assemble. (The right to instruct had been included in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, but was ignored in Madison’s recommendations to Congress.) The debate over Tucker’s amendment, which consumed more time than any other issue in the proposed Bill of Rights, gets to the very heart of what our government is all about. Should we have a republic—a representative government, in which elected leaders are free to deliberate and decide on their own—or a democracy, in which representatives follow the lead of their constituents? Students engage with this question twice: first as members of the First Federal Congress, not knowing how the government would evolve, and then as modern-day citizens, taking into account partisan gridlock, media (print, broadcast, social, and internet news), and the infusion of money into the political arena.


  • Excellent article and great program. Engaging students to directly participate in learning and getting them to think about possible options and potential outcomes, as well as second and third order effects is challenging yet rewarding for students and facilitators alike.

    I’ve used similar methods during battlefield staff rides of the New York Campaign of 1776. What is amazing to me, is that when placed in the roles of opposing leaders and confronted with similar situations and resources on the same ground where an action actually took place, college students consistently make the same decisions, with favorable or unfavorable consequences, as their predecessors did almost 250 years ago.

    Thanks for this great contribution to educating the next generation.

  • Excellent strategy that could be adapted in variety of ways. Assigning each student a particular historical actor seems the way into this. But a question: where are the biographies and information that would give this age group the information they need? It would be a gift to many of us if someone would compile a bibliography or, better still, write these books. I wish someone had told me, a Southerner whose ancestors were part of the civil war that went on in SC, about it. As a child who loved rags-to-riches stories, I would have latched onto Jonathan Morgan’s with pleasure. But all we ever read was about the war in New England and the Middle Colonies. In no American history course I ever took—from fifth grade through undergraduate degree in English that included American history courses—did I learn anything about the Southern Campaign. I’d visited King’s Mountain, but I had no context for understanding that battle. I came away with an admiration for long rifles and the knowledge that most used by the backcountry folks had been custom made by German gunsmiths in the Great Valley or thereabouts. It would be a great service for some historian to write a series of biographies about everyone from Greene to Morgan to Marion. Parents complain their children do not learn America’s history and yet they have few places to turn to teach them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *